The only war that matters is the war against the imagination/ all other wars are subsumed in it. Diane Di Prima
A sense among young people of being silenced in the face of impending disaster is even more relevant today than it was in the late 1960s.
A survey for Teach the Future by Bath University asked 10,000 young people across the world in 2021 for their views and feelings about the future in the context of the climate crisis.
76% were afraid of the future.
54% thought that humanity is doomed.
39% were actively considering not having children.
That is a tidal wave of anxiety that will come out in all sorts of pathological forms if it is denied or silenced, but generated positive action from 2018 on; with the wave of school strikes that built up to millions taking part across the world by September 2019. This generated a supportive movement among parents, teachers and other educators, to change the curriculum as an agent of change for our whole society; anticipating the shifts we will need for a sustainable society, so that we are actively making them.
This is driven by the reality of climate breakdown.
As I am writing this, the Storm Eunice is howling outside and the rain splattering on my window after a week of storms. A world that felt mostly safe for most of my life no longer does. Switch on the laptop and climate crisis impacts are all over it. They are hitting the Global South hardest, but are coming home to roost in the Global North too. No one is going to stop it by building a wall.
The mobilisations in response are the human fuel for change.
A government serious about making a transition to sustainability would learn from it, work with it and use it to galvanise more people to act on the scale and with the urgency we need, with schools acting as community hubs. Actually implement Article 12 of the Paris Agreement, which mandates governments to educate their whole people to understand the scale of the crisis and the measures needed to overcome it.
Instead – alongside the most minimal steps forward in the DFE Net Zero Strategy – we have new guidance on “Political impartiality in schools”. which is designed to keep this movement within safe bounds for the government.
The headlines that heralded this announcement all screamed that this itself is anything but politically impartial, with student movements protests on climate, Palestine and racism; critical views of the British Empire or figures like Churchill specifically mentioned as “woke” issues – or “left wing brain washing” – that would be suppressed by it. This is an attempt to speak power to truth.
The actual guidance is far more subtle than a Daily Express headline is capable of and plays on the fact that teachers are – in general – far more fair minded and conscientious and far less partisan than, say, a government Minister. The law on this matter is quite specific and limited. “Partisan” views are those which support one political Party over another, or put forward one solution to the exclusion of all others. The guidance has some quite unexceptional points that just about every teacher would use in any case, that if stating a personal view, identifying it as such and saying that other views are available, or, if there is a genuinely contested argument, pointing out sources of differing interpretation. A similarly mature approach might be welcome in some of our newspapers. Debating an issue of concern to students, or organising clubs to pursue it, is not, in itself “partisan”. However, the liberal use of the word throughout the guidance creates the impression that it might be; with the intention of inhibiting both teachers and students from exploring the issues involved without feeling there is someone looking over their shoulder waiting to dob them in to the DFE thought police. As there very rarely is, this is an attempt to set such an inhibition in people’s heads. We shouldn’t let it in.
Presenting issues in a “balanced” way is less of an issue than whether an issue is being presented truthfully. The problem comes when the presentation of awkward facts for those in power gets interpreted as partisan and ruled out of order. This is the US Alt Right playbook to control narratives expressed in the accents of the British civil service. Much of the framing of the discussion on History in the press suffers precisely from this sort of cherry picking. Attempts to look at the history of the British Empire from the point of view of the colonised as well as the coloniser, for example, lead to really jumpy reactions from people who would like that perspective to remain suppressed; whether that is in the classroom or the National Trust. This is not because people are unaware that the elegant stately homes they love were built with the proceeds of slavery, but that they’d really prefer not to be reminded of it. Its because they know that this is a fact that they find it so disturbing; and so resort to disavowal. Look straight at something, and pretend its not there. There’s only so much reality one can take, after all. The “war on woke” is designed to sustain existing unbalanced views and hagiographies in a way that turns History into a series of self serving myths, and any questioning of them into heresies. None of us should be intimidated into ceasing to question or challenge.
There is an attempt running all the way through the guidance to inhibit the expression of any view that might be interpreted as partisan, as well as a staggering lack of self awareness of the partisan views of the government itself – which this guidance acts to disguise.
On climate in particular, a little humility would not go amiss from a governing Party that
- abstained on the Parliamentary motion to declare a climate emergency,
- still contains the organising cadre of climate denial and delay in the form of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group,
- has for the most part come very late to any recognition of the scale of this crisis,
- has a default to backslide, and a Net Zero Plan with targets that its own Parliamentary watchdog says it will undershoot by 80%.
These are awkward facts. Not contestable because they are on the public record. Would it be “partisan” to point them out? What would the “balance” be? It is the weakness of government responses to the scale and enormity of the crisis that has fueled the student protest movements and strikes.
The relatively tepid language of the guidance acts as the soft cop to the hard cop role of the tabloids, which are primed to go after examples of “woke” teaching in the same way they did in the 1980s when some schools tried to teach that it was ok to have two Dads or two Mums, which led to exactly the same sort of accusations of indoctrination – teaching kids to be gay – “its political correctness gone mad” etc etc etc with hues and cries at school gates from parents frightened their kids were being “turned gay”; allowing the Conservative government to introduce Section 28 and ban teaching that gay families were ok. They don’t talk about that much anymore, but they do have a pretty consistent record of being on the wrong side of history.
Let us consider Scenario A – dealing with climate breakdown – in the new DFE guidance on “political impartiality in schools” in the context of their overall edict that “You can discuss political issues with pupils, and their interest and engagement in these should be encouraged. However, you should not promote partisan political views to them, or encourage them to participate in specific political activity, including protests”.
The paradox of this position is that it is a truth universally acknowledged that the cure for an otherwise disabling level of anxiety is to take action against the causes of it. Depression and despair sets in where such action is blocked. The driver of the fear in the survey is that most young people feel that their governments are failing to tackle the problem on the scale and at the speed needed to resolve it. it is the gap between the knowledge of the crisis and the paltry scale of the actions being taken to deal with it that causes despondency.
In Scenario A the government acknowledges that there is no justified argument against the reality of climate breakdown, the reasons for it and the disastrous consequences of failing to deal with it, neatly disowning a noisy faction of its own back benches, as follows.
“Teaching about climate change and the scientific facts and evidence behind this, would not constitute teaching about a political issue. Schools do not need to present misinformation, such as unsubstantiated claims that anthropogenic climate change is not occurring, to provide balance here.“
So, there is no requirement to cover the sort of nonsense put out by the Global Warming Foundation to provide “balance”.
However, where teaching covers the potential solutions for tackling climate change, this may constitute a political issue. Different groups, including political parties and campaign groups, may have partisan political views on the best way to address climate change.
This part of the topic should be taught in a balanced manner, with teachers not promoting any of the partisan political views covered to pupils.
In other words. Its ok – in fact its desirable – to have a debate. Partisan views can be expressed in a lesson, so long as there is more than one of them. Not only that, but its also ok for teachers to express a personal view, as long as it is clearly identified as such, and its made clear that other views are available.
Its in the area of potential solutions, that go beyond technical matters to how we organise society and deal with issues of justice and fairness in the transition we have to make, that open debate is essential. The government’s model of education tends to emphasise the transmission of “knowledge” – an old fashioned passing down of truths from authority figures – and they tend to interpret debate in the same way as manipulation by authority figures. What they seem to have missed is that so much of the debate, with “partisan views” fiercely expressed, has been led by students who have felt let down by the absence of content, absence of urgency and absence of organisation and mobilisation in schools and communities. In so far as any progress is being made at all, including by the DFE, it is down to them. It is no job of a responsible teacher to try to shut them up.
The whole point about trying to forge a just transition is that we are making it up as we go along, no one has all the answers and to find them we have to let a hundred flowers blossom and a thousand schools of thought contend; so we can (all) look up, wake up and create our own future.