The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 1

October 11, 2020

In my last blogpost, Ends and Means, I mentioned the obligations on teachers to be politically neutral. In particular, I referred to the Education Act 1996 which outlines those duties.

406 Political indoctrination.

  1. The local authority, governing body and head teacher shall forbid—
    (a) the pursuit of partisan political activities by any of those registered pupils at a maintained school who are junior pupils, and
    (b) the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school.
  2. In the case of activities which take place otherwise than on the school premises, subsection (1)(a) applies only where arrangements for junior pupils to take part in the activities are made by—
    (a) any member of the school’s staff (in his capacity as such), or
    (b) anyone acting on behalf of the school or of a member of the school’s staff (in his capacity as such)…

407 Duty to secure balanced treatment of political issues.

  1. (1) The local authority, governing body and head teacher shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils while they are—
    (a) in attendance at a maintained school, or
    (b) taking part in extra-curricular activities which are provided or organised for registered pupils at the school by or on behalf of the school, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.

Recent government guidance on RSE apparently seeks to give some more guidance about how this is to be achieved in RSE lessons, with reference to contemporary issues affecting RSE.

What’s strange and controversial about the guidance?

The guidance has some surprising features, most of which I would suggest seem to reflect recent online debates and controversies. In a section on external agencies, alongside reminders that reflect the legislation quoted above and the need for familiarity with the values of external organisations providing training in schools, it states:

Schools should not under any circumstances work with external agencies that take or promote extreme positions or use materials produced by such agencies. Examples of extreme positions include, but are not limited to:

  • promoting non-democratic political systems rather than those based on democracy, whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
  • teaching that requirements of English civil or criminal law may be disregarded whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
  • engaging in or encouraging active or persistent harassment or intimidation of individuals in support of their cause
  • promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society
  • selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions

Some of this seems to just reflect, fairly enough, obligations that already exist. The reference to “promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society” must have puzzled many people who are not already involved with debating cultural politics online. In recent years, there have been online “culture wars” relating to race, sexuality and gender in which the status of particular groups as oppressed or marginalised has been of key importance. While few people would deny that racism, sexism or transphobia exist, there have been heated arguments about the relative severity of different forms of discrimination, and how some of the key terms should be applied. This is likely to be due to the phenomena, (described here as “identitarian deference”), whereby debates are to be resolved by blindly accepting the views of those assumed to be speaking for the most marginalised identity group. This has ensured the importance of establishing from one’s identity characteristics whether one has victim status and to what extent. To those involved in such discussions, which often take place online, “divisive or victim narratives” is easy to understand as referring to claims that some groups are always to be almost always recognised as victims, and some rarely or never are. But without that background in online discourse, the reference to “victim narratives” must be thoroughly confusing in a way government guidance really shouldn’t be.

In a section on resources, it is stated that:

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to:

  • a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections
  • opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience
  • the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications
    the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity
  • a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property

Providing one reasonably\ interprets the meaning of “resources” as something used to study a subject rather than the object of study (i.e. a worksheet rather than an example of a political poster) this seems reasonable. It’s really not obvious why you would get your lessons plans from revolutionary groups. However, the mention of “capitalism” is provocative. Presumably there could be an argument to be made that seeking to “abolish or overthrow… capitalism” is not extreme, although I’ve yet to see anyone make it without interpreting the phrase in ways that seem unlikely to reflect what was intended, or apparently ignoring it entirely.

A section on ensuring content is appropriate includes this section:

We are aware that topics involving gender and biological sex can be complex and sensitive matters to navigate. You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear. Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material. While teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support.

Gender identity is incredibly controversial at the moment in online discourse, with battle lines being drawn and redrawn every day and calls to ostracise people for expressing the wrong views on gender identity, or even not expressing the right ones, are very common. While I could link to thousands of examples of this, the best possible (but rather lengthy) discussion of cancel culture and gender identity I have ever seen is in this youtube video which, whether you agree with it or not, vividly illustrates how fraught this debate has become.

Further controversy has been caused, not by the guidance itself, but a slide in one of the training modules advising teachers to:

Explain the harm caused by ‘cancel culture’ and the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of association to a tolerant and free society.

Teach that censorship and ‘no platforming’ are harmful and damaging.

Explain that seeking to get people ‘cancelled’ (e.g. having them removed from their position of authority or job) simply because you disagree with them, is a form of bullying and is not acceptable.

If one believes, as I do, that “cancel culture” is a form of bullying and that freedom of speech is both a human right (when threatened by the state) and a British value (when threatened by anyone) then this is not inconsistent with what exists already. However, I can’t help but see this as being in a particular type of language that I have mostly encountered online and stemming from online culture wars, rather than education concerns.

So overall, I’m not disagreeing with the guidance, and I’m absolutely convinced that the government has a right to do this, but I do find myself wondering about why some of the language has been chosen, and whether some of the controversy was caused deliberately.

In Part 2, I will look at whether the guidance addresses real problems, and some of the myths about it.





  1. […] Teaching in British schools « The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 1 […]

  2. […] The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 1 […]

  3. […] The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 1 […]

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