The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 2

October 17, 2020

In my previous post I began discussing the recent RSE guidance. Please read that post first, as I continue the discussion here.

Is the guidance addressing real concerns?

One of the obvious complaints to make about the new RSE guidance is to suggest it was unnecessary, particularly at a time like this. I think the concern that a problem hasn’t been proved to exist is often overstated. When people ask if there is evidence that a problem the government seeks to address is real, I’m acutely aware that we often apply a double standard. For many years schools were attempting to deal with the problem of FGM, even though there had literally been no convictions (the first conviction in the UK was in 2019). Asking schools to look out for a problem is often part of the process of gathering evidence that there is a problem. For this reason, I’m not prepared to say you must prove there is a problem before action is taken, although that is a valid concern if the action is costly or has significant down sides. Where action is cheap and convenient, like a few words of guidance, then reasonable suspicion that a problem exists is enough.

So is there an issue of political bias in schools? In almost 20 years of teaching I have never encountered a teacher showing political bias in the classroom (although there was a TA once). Many teachers I know have very different experiences with this, although I’ve noticed almost all of those who tell me that teachers have been blatantly biased in the classroom in their experience have worked in London. Before the guidance came out, I would have said classroom bias was an insignificant issue. However, some of the online criticism of the guidance I’ve seen since it did come out seems to suggest that a significant number (although not necessarily a large proportion) of teachers were unaware of their statutory obligations to be balanced and impartial. Some teachers have been arguing quite explicitly that such an obligation is unreasonable. While I suspect scrutiny of what is taught about bias in teacher training might be more useful than new guidance, I accept there is an issue to be addressed.

The other part of the guidance where some expressed doubt there is an actual problem is over gender identity. In particular, does any external organisation that works in schools teach that, “non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity”?

I think there’s a few points of evidence that the organisation Mermaids, despite denials, has promoted that view (although I cannot confirm this has occurred in schools).

This slide – note the toys at the bottom – was used in a training session for the police:

The Mermaids website used to claim the following:

And a factsheet Mermaids wrote, still used by some LAs, said this:

So, again, I am convinced the guidance is addressing a genuine issue, although I don’t know how common it is in schools.

Myths about the guidance

Finally, it is worth mentioning some of the sheer nonsense in the reaction to the debate over the guidance. According to the Guardian:

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the measures effectively outlawed reference in schools to key events in British history, and that it symbolised growing “authoritarianism” within the governing Conservative party…

…McDonnell said: “On this basis it will be illegal to refer to large tracts of British history and politics including the history of British socialism, the Labour Party and trade unionism, all of which have at different times advocated the abolition of capitalism.

“This is another step in the culture war and this drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace and should worry anyone who believes that democracy requires freedom of speech and an educated populace.”

This is obvious nonsense, but several myths seem to have circulated:

  1. It’s a new law. It’s guidance. The law already included obligations to be politically neutral. Having the guidance makes it harder to break the law and say that was unintentional, but it only clarifies existing obligations.
  2. The guidance is about all subjects. It is not. It was about RSE. While teachers existing obligations apply across the curriculum, this clarification was rather specific. Claims that it affects teaching in history and English are baseless.
  3. It bans teaching about injustice. You can refer to injustice without creating “divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society”. Or at least you should be able to. It seems unlikely that such a phrase refers to uncontroversial facts, rather than highly controversial political statements.
  4. The guidance refers to all critics of capitalism and all “anti-capitalists”. The guidance warned about groups that have “a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow … capitalism”. If one wants to interpret this as referring to everyone to the left of Milton Friedman, one can, but it would make more sense to see this as referring to revolutionaries.
  5. The guidance is about what can be studied. The warnings about extreme groups referred to “resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances”. The examples given in the guidance are:
    • lesson plans
    • complete curriculum plans
    • other classroom materials such as videos or posters

    This would indicate teaching resources, i.e. resources designed for teachers, rather than anything and everything a teacher might ask students to study. So even if the guidance did apply to other subjects, it wouldn’t prohibit historical sources or works of literature.

I said last time that there were some odd phrases in the guidance, as if it was intended to contribute more to online culture wars than the classroom. However, I think the worst criticism that can be made of it is that it is a trap intended for teachers. And this is why the angry reaction to it was ill-judged, because if somebody sets a trap for you, throwing yourself into it is not a good idea.



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

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

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

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