An Open Letter to Gavin Williamson concerning censorship of ‘extreme’ political content in schools.

Young Citizens has today joined with 23 other organisations, including Shout Out UK, the Association of Citizenship Teaching, and The Politics Project, in a letter to the Secretary of State Gavin Williamson, expressing our concern about the implications of new government guidance to schools.

Tom Franklin, CEO of Young Citizens, commented,

“Every young person needs opportunities at school to be able to be able to discuss political topics and to form their own views on such matters. This helps them to prepare for a life of active citizenship where they are able to engage in politics and democracy. They must have access to a range of political viewpoints and stances, and we are concerned that the guidance as currently drafted may impact on teachers’ confidence to present this and to encourage political discussion.  We are seeking urgent clarification from Mr Williamson.”

The letter states:

Dear Mr Williamson,

We write this joint open letter as a coalition of organisations in the political education and democracy promotion sectors to raise our concerns about the Department’s guidance on relationships, sex and health education (RSE) issued on Thursday 24th September 2020. We acknowledge that this guidance has been issued to schools in the context of RSE, not the PSHE umbrella it sits within, but we are nonetheless concerned about the precedent this may set for other aspects of the curriculum, and the impact it may have on teachers’ confidence to cover political topics.

The guidance states that: “Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters”, and provides a non-exhaustive list of examples. Our concerns revolve around this point in particular.

As advocates for widening access to education about political issues, we implore the government to consider that this regulation has the potential to censor the already minimal discussion of politics in schools. The guidelines serve to deny students the opportunity to engage with material from ‘extreme’ sources in a classroom environment, precluding informed debate and discouraging critical thinking. Political education continues to be either inadequate or completely absent for most students in the UK; we want to ensure that any window of opportunity to discuss politics is as wide as possible.

With respect to this guidance, which is non-statutory implementation guidance, we seek urgent clarification on the following points:

  1. How schools are to facilitate a sufficiently diverse dialogue on topics within the RSE curriculum without limiting themselves unnecessarily for fear that the resources they wish to use could be interpreted as being in breach of the guidelines;
  2. Whether the Department can assure educators that these stark restrictions will not be extended to other subjects in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, leaving schools free to continue to teach an array of contested ideas and viewpoints without fear of recrimination;
  3. Whether schools can continue to work with, and draw on the resources of, civil society organisations and education providers who embrace open dialogue and diversity of thought to achieve a nuanced approach to complex social and political topics.

Students must be armed with the Political and Media Literacy skills to ensure that they can understand and discuss political issues with a critical mindset. ‘Extreme’ political organisations will exist whether or not schools are allowed to discuss them in the classroom, but this guidance deprives students of the chance to tackle them head-on. Politics necessitates dialogue and the continual contestation of ideas. Schools should be a safe place for this to happen without fear of recrimination or censorship.

Signed By

  1. Matteo Bergamini, CEO & Founder of Shout Out UK
  2. Kate Harris, CEO & Co-Founder of VotesforSchools
  3. Caroline Hunt, Equal Education Spokesperson, Women’s Equality Party
  4. Tom Franklin, CEO, Young Citizens
  5. Harriet Andrews, Director, The Politics Project
  6. Klina Jordan, Co-CE, Make Votes Matter (personal capacity)
  7. Tom de Grunwald, Co-founder, Forward Democracy
  8. Ayesha Garrett, Director, Sortition Foundation
  9. Sarah Matthews, Director, Sortition Foundation
  10. Philipp Verpoort, Director, Sortition Foundation
  11. David Jubb, Director, Sortition Foundation
  12. Tom Lord, Project Manager, Sortition Foundation
  13. Mete Coban, My Life My Say
  14. Greg Sanderson, Smart School Councils
  15. Keith Garrett, Leader, Rebooting Democracy Party
  16. Peter Dunphy, Director, Unite to Reform
  17. Dr James Weinberg, Political Scientist, University of Sheffield (personal capacity)
  18. Dr Andrew Mycock, University of Huddersfield
  19. Matilda Lawrence-Jubb, Director, Split Banana
  20. Anna Alexander, Director, Split Banana
  21. Molly Scott Cato, Professor of Green Economics, Roehampton University
  22. Steve Williams, Education Consultant, former headteacher and schools inspector
  23. XR Citizens’ Assembly Working Group
  24. Neal Lawson, Compass
  25. Liz Moorse, Chief Executive, Association for Citizenship Teaching
  26. Loic Menzies, Chief Executive, The Centre for Education and Youth
  27. Shelley Metcalfe, Founder and Director, The Digital Life Skills Company
  28. Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation
  29. Professor Matthew Flinders, Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, University of Sheffield

The views expressed in this letter represent those of the signatories and not necessarily their organisations or employers