The new Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan MP, appeared before the Department for Education Select Committee last week to discuss political impartiality in schools. Guidance on this was published by the department in February, and the committee wanted to know how effective this was and whether schools were confident in following it.
This is an important question. The government has long promised the production of similar guidance specifically relating to transgender ideology in schools, and therefore if there are concerns about the implementation of this guidance, these should be listened to and addressed.
However, the responses from Gillian Keegan to some sensible and important questions from MPs Miriam Cates, Caroline Ansell, Nick Fletcher and Anna Firth were ineffectual, vague and potentially dishonest.
According to research, three quarters of British children had been exposed to some kind of critical social theory (including gender identity) and 68% of those questioned had been taught those views as fact without alternative views on offer, or they were told that alternative views were not respectable. Gillian Keegan was asked if teaching contested theories as fact was politically partisan. She agreed that it was and highlighted her commitment to transparency and the ability to have debate. It was a good start, but unfortunately the quality of her responses deteriorated from that point.
It was stressed in the guidance that political views should not be imposed on children by teachers. Miriam Cates MP asked about the consequences for schools who break the law and impose widely contest views on their students, and questioned how schools can be made accountable. The response was to state that the vast majority of teachers took their responsibility “extremely carefully”, that not everyone has the same opinion, there are not any widely settled views and that there is a legitimate debate. This does not address the issue of schools adopting an affirmation approach to gender ideology which suppresses debate. So the question was not answered.
The question was asked again “when a teacher imposes a contested view as fact, is that not indoctrination?”. The question was again not answered.
Ms Cates then asked how schools can be forced to adhere to the guidance. Ms Keegan responded with some vague talk about Ofsted and claimed they will be updating how we look at these issues. It was not clear how Ofsted will be doing this or on what basis. So again, no straight answer.
The Permanent Secretary at the DfE, Susan Acland-Hood, talked about “difficult waters” and “difficult paths to navigate” and “teachers working hard to do that well”. We know that many do take their responsibilities seriously and work hard not to indoctrinate children. We also know that some do not, and that many others find themselves at odds with the prevailing culture within the school and feel intimidated by it.
Caroline Ansell MP shared the experiences of several teachers who are worried about what they are being asked to teach. Teachers are calling in sick to avoid teaching curriculum materials that they think are quite damaging. She expressed concern that the freedom of speech for teachers is not being protected. At Safe Schools Alliance we can support this: we get many emails from teachers who are also struggling and are fearful for their jobs if they complain. Ms Ansell asked whether it was right for parents to have to police, monitor or judge what is right and appropriate for their children. Should this not be considered at a higher level?
Ms Ansell went on to talk about the dismay of a grandfather in her constituency who heard from his grandson that “today we were learning if we were born in the wrong body”. The grandfather shared that he would not dare raise it as a concern with the school for fear of being labelled transphobic. She asked what the Education Secretary’s advice would be to those parents and teachers who either had to teach a five-year-old they could be born in the wrong body or were worried about their young child learning such a thing as fact.
This is a question that we would hope the Secretary of State for Education would have a clear response to; one that was grounded in safeguarding and child welfare. Sadly the answer from the Gillian Keegan MP was rambling, convoluted and obfuscating: “this is not just schools right, this is a debate that is broader than that in terms of you know the size of the debate I mean we are all frightened to go on Twitter right in terms of having any views because you know we’ve seen very, very publicly and very high profile people become targeted because of their views on either side of that debate and the most important thing is that we retain the ability to have a sensible debate”.
This response does not fill us with confidence.
Apparently, the DfE are putting together guidance that will be widely consulted on because “the reality is there are different views and there are opposing views”. Ms Keegan does not seem to grasp that it does not matter if there are differences and opposing views. This is about teaching children facts and taking a safeguarding-first approach.
On to her experience in schools. No, the Education Secretary has not seen a thing, not heard a thing, has no experience of this being the massive issue everyone is making it out to be. We find this incredible. Her fellow MPs are telling her that teachers are worried; at Safe Schools Alliance we have been sharing concerns with her department for four years and currently have about one hundred emails we have not had time to respond to in our inbox (she is welcome to come and do a shift to get a real flavour on how things are in schools). But apparently Ms Keegan has not heard one single incident of a teacher being worried about what they teach or fearful for their jobs if they speak out.
Of course the irony is that she has just stated that everyone is frightened to have an opinion on this, so on this basis we are unsure how she proposed to seek out the honest views of teachers and parents. The Education Secretary did say she wants to hear from teachers who are concerned for their jobs if they speak out. It is a shame she does not realise they are going to be reluctant to contact her for this very reason.
Nick Fletcher MP noted that sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of seven-year-olds is damaging, that there are books written by activists that are finding their way into school when they shouldn’t be, and that parents do not realise they have the right to ask and challenge what their children are being taught. Where do they go if they do not get anywhere with the school? How does the DfE stop damaging materials getting into school in the first place?
Gillian Keegan did once again emphasise that schools should be open with parents and should avoid signing agreements with commercial providers who restrict their ability to share resources with parents and stressed the need for transparency. We welcome this advice to schools.
However, she still gave no answer to the question “where can parents go if their schools won’t offer transparency?”
Miriam Cates highlighted the fact that these issues are not isolated. It’s a widespread problem. Around half of British children are being taught contested theories as fact with no ability to discuss or challenge or offered an alternative viewpoint. She stressed that whilst there are debates to be had in society, we need to be clear what is appropriate to tell a five-year-old. The guidance needs to be based on safeguarding and evidence and not an attempt to “balance contested views”.
The answer from the Education Secretary “100% as I said there was no need for transgender guidance when we were at school, there is now, that’s why we are doing it”.
Does that answer the question or address the safeguarding point? We think not.
Gillian Keegan then noted that whilst people have raised issues this is not really a big deal and she does not see it in the schools she goes into. She then went on to question the veracity of the report that Miriam Cates had shared, stating that there are groups in this debate with “skin in the game”. At Safe Schools Alliance we are very well aware of that, Ms Keegan.
The draft guidance will go out for full public consultation in early 2023. They will consult “broadly”.
So please – write to the Secretary of State for Education with your concerns.