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Controversial issues: guidance for schools

3. What can teachers do to avoid unfairly influencing pupils?

The very nature of controversial issues means that people hold strong opinions about them. In this respect, teachers are no different from other citizens.

There is always a risk of bias, whether unwitting or otherwise, creeping into teaching and discussions with pupils. What counts as bias? How can it be avoided? What sort of influence is legitimate, and what sort is illegitimate, for teachers to exercise over their pupils?

To begin with, it is important for teachers to distinguish their role as private citizens from their role as public educators. Teachers are forbidden by law from promoting partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in schools.

Section 407 of the Education Act 1996 requires school governing bodies, head teachers and local education authorities to take all reasonably practical steps to ensure that, where political or controversial issues (such as UK military interventions) are brought to pupils' attention, they 'are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views'.

In practice, this means:

  • giving equal importance to conflicting views and opinions;
  • presenting all information and opinion as open to interpretation, qualification and contradiction;
  • establishing a classroom climate in which all pupils are free to express sincerely held views without fear.

It also means teachers seeking to avoid unintentional bias by:

  • not presenting opinions as if they are facts;
  • not setting themselves up as the sole authority on a subject;
  • as far as possible, not giving their own accounts of the views of others, but, rather, letting the actual claims and assertions of protagonists speak for themselves;
  • not revealing their own preferences in unconscious ways, e.g., facial expressions, gestures or tone of voice;
  • not implying a correct opinion through their choice of respondents in a discussion;
  • not failing to challenge a one-sided consensus that emerges too quickly in the classroom.

In cases of international conflict, such as that of Iraq, teachers should be aware that the range of opinion is often far wider than that which is represented in the western media. Wherever possible, it is important to make pupils aware of the sorts of views and arguments that are found in non-western media as well.

Similarly, teachers should resist the inclination to promote attitudes that apparently reflect prevailing public opinion to the detriment of minority views. Where public opinion on an issue is particularly vocal, this can be difficult to achieve.

Nevertheless, it is not the job of the teacher to side with majority opinion, but to subject all views to rational criticism.

4. What kind of values may legitimately be taught in school?

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