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How schools are captured by ideological institutions

Propaganda is still propaganda when it is branded with rainbows and sparkles

This week*, Nadeem Zahawi told teachers that they have ‘an important role in preparing children and young people for life in modern Britain, and teaching them about the society and world they grow up in.’

Actually, after 26 years in the classroom, I had worked that out for myself. Children spend significant periods of their lives with their teachers, and we have a huge responsibility that goes far beyond drilling our pupils for exams.

But something has gone amiss in schools, and it seems that Zahawi might even realise that as well. In new guidance he has told teachers this week to avoid political bias in the classrooms. The guidance lays out certain topics that ‘should be taught in a balanced manner’ and tells teachers to ‘stop promoting contested theory as fact.’

Part of the problem with politics in schools is about resources as much as ideology. For too long, the agenda in education has been driven by exam results and league tables. Non-examined courses like PSHE – personal, social, health and economic education – have become Cinderella subjects.

PSHE is vital; probably more so to many children than even electric circuit theory, and I say that as a physics teacher. But when we are under huge pressure to perform, it is too easy for stressed-out teachers to divert time, attention and resources to activities that will bump up grades instead.

But PSHE still needs to be taught and we need resources to teach it, ideally pre-prepared and ready to deliver. Third party organisations have been only too happy to step into the gap with their own teaching materials.

Need to teach ‘Trans Inclusive RSHE’ to four- to seven-year-olds? Stonewall has lesson packs just for that. The hard work has all been done: ‘Each of our LGBTQ+ inclusive lessons has a PowerPoint that you can use to support your whole class teaching.’

If the subject is anti-racism, the British Red Cross offers downloads for free. But a charity’s proud history does not guarantee its political impartiality when it comes to education. Throughout the lesson plan, Black Lives Matter is capitalised – linking directly to the political campaign rather than the underlying truth that black lives do indeed matter.

Primary schools looking for a one-stop shop might be tempted by the educational package offered by No Outsiders. Their vision is grand – ‘inclusive education, promoting community cohesion to prepare young people and adults for life as global citizens.’ Make no mistake this is a professional outfit – they even sell merch to ‘wear with pride and show support for teaching equality in primary schools’. But schools are playing a dangerous game by contracting out their thinking.

If something looks too good to be true it probably is, and propaganda is still propaganda when it is branded with rainbows and sparkles. It seems that the Department for Education has finally noticed.

The guidance that Zahawi’s department issued this week pointed out more of the blindingly obvious, ‘Schools should be aware that “partisan political views” are not limited to just political parties. They may also be held by campaign groups, lobbyists and charitable organisations.’

Zahawi added, ‘Clearer guidance on political impartiality is just one part of my wider work to give children the best possible education.’

But it is much easier for a government minister to talk about political impartiality than it is for teachers to deliver it. Zahawi might say that, ‘no subject is off-limits in the classroom, as long as it is treated in an age-appropriate way, with sensitivity and respect, and without promoting contested theories as fact,’ but to make progress we need to be able to distinguish contested theories from facts.

As a scientist, I can dismiss creationism as a belief with no place in the classroom. But other people do hold the belief that the earth is young. Not only that, but they believe that there is proof of Noah’s flood in the geological record. We can debate who is right and who is wrong, but I am not going to start teaching creationism in the meantime.

But what about gender identity? Again, as a scientist, I see no need to invent something unprovable and unfalsifiable to explain that some people might be unhappy with the sex of their bodies. Is gender identity any different to creationism? Both are based on belief and both have proponents who claim to have supporting evidence. However, while creationism is usually dismissed without debate, there is great social pressure for gender identity to be accepted without debate. Why?

Zahawi’s guidance extends for 9,000 words, and includes 19 scenarios starting with climate change and ending with political systems. Each one can be up for debate – or not. Those who win an individual debate may be content with their prize, but the real power is held by those who decide just what can be debated in the first place. Campaign groups, lobbyists and charitable organisations – to use Zahawi’s words – have been astonishingly successful in this regard.

But identifying the problem is only the first step to putting this right. We need to empower teachers and schools and give children the resources to think for themselves. There, the government has a poor record. I teach physics; I also used to teach critical thinking. I taught my pupils to analyse arguments, identify flaws, assess the credibility of sources, and construct reasoned arguments of their own – all based on evidence and examples. However, in line with the government programme of general qualification reform, the A-Level course was cancelled in 2016.

If Zahawi is serious about rectifying the problem, then he needs to get to the heart of the problem. We might possibly evict those unhelpful influences from schools, but we are less likely to remove them from the internet. In short, we need to teach children to think for themselves.


Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 19 February 2022: How schools are captured by ideological institutions.

6 replies on “How schools are captured by ideological institutions”

I should start use sex more.
Whenever i start to talk about gender progressive people add gender identity and use it interchangably with gender.

And they mock me and tell me gender identity is not just about genitals and sperm and vagina. “What about men who decide not to have children are they men?”.

I stand there thinking “wtf are they on about?”

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Debbie thinks that we should talk only about sex and not gender. That makes a certain amount of sense, except that I grew up using “gender” as the main word to describe one’s sex. In other words, to me, “gender” and “sex” meant the same thing. I think that was probably true for most people, since the idea that your gender can be different from your sex is a very new idea. If someone spoke to me in the way that that person spoke to you, I would simply say, “I don’t agree that our gender can be different from our sex. To me, they’re the same thing.” Actually, at that point they usually start trying to “teach” me all the new ideas that have arisen, not realizing that I have considered all of them already. And when I make it clear that I mean what I’m saying, then they drag out the mean words — “hater”, “transphobe”, etc. So maybe my approach isn’t working.

However, Debbie’s remark that “gender identity” is an illusion is an interesting one. I have to admit that when a man says he feels like a woman, it makes sense to describe him as having the gender identity of a woman. People seem to understand the phrase, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere. When the conversation takes such a term, that’s when I say, “Your ‘gender identity’ just describes how you feel; it doesn’t change your actual gender, which is the same as your sex.” That’s when they start talking to me about science, which gets us into an argument about which science is more important — biological science or brain science.

Ultimately, I get to lecturing them that truth is more important than pretense, and then the mean words come out again.

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I rarely debate the issue, but on many other related things I have debated, I find people are generally confused about the “brain science” too. This has probably contributed quite a lot to the culture where so many think “gender identity” is defined or indicated by personal feelings (and a whole lot of stereotypes regarding behaviours and interests, rights and responsibilities). Like strength or height or interest in violent video games, the ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain we read about in pop-culture articles is a statistical skew between the two. It is also virtually impossible to differentiate between brain functions that are inherent and those that are formed by culturation (everything we do changes our brain). So, while studies in infants do suggest some fairly strong differences between the sexes, these are still statistical differences, and still susceptible to very early learning (since babies usually have very different experiences in their environment from the moment of their birth, if not before).

What I try to emphasize is that maximizing human equality relies on applying fundamental principles to all people across the board as far as possible. There are, of course, typical needs that are different between the sexes, just as there are between children and adults, or particularly vulnerable adults and reasonably empowered ones, but we need to stop going down the route of endlessly inventing new categories of “identity” and imagining they are all necessarily objective, then making them part of our legal structures. It’s insane. The list of letters added to the ‘LGBTQAI++’ nonsense is a good example. If we campaigned for the rights of H people – humans, no matter who – we’d be doing more good and less harm.

Yes, we confuse ‘gender’, which is a vague catch-all for various qualities of personality, with ‘sex’. We endlessly, incorrectly, damagingly, imagine that if a boy likes playing with dolls, or has a fancy to go to school in a skirt like his best friend, there’s something questionable about his sex, or if a girl likes her hair short and wants to be a racing driver, she’s probably a boy in the wrong body. We coo over baby girls and complement them on how beautiful they are, and little boys on how brave and strong they are. And then, when a country is invaded, we see little wrong in helping women across the border (with the children, naturally), while making it illegal for a man to leave, since he’s expected to take up arms and fight, as is the case right now in Ukraine. The idea that he might be more caring or closer to the kids, and she might have been wanting to slaughter the enemy all her life and now has a chance doesn’t come into it. The idea of letting couples, or individuals, decide what to do for themselves doesn’t seem to come into it. The gender stereotype demands our roles.

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Excellent post. It’s a terrible shame to lose critical thinking from the GCSE/A Level offerings, but that was a bare minimum. Education in critical thinking ought to be a bedrock, a compulsory part of the school curriculum, taught as soon as possible through engaging activities. Playing games is a great method for little ones. It relies on applying rules and therefore establishes an understanding of correctly applying procedure – i.e. kids learn that “winning” doesn’t mean anything if you got it by cheating.

I wonder, if we had been teaching good thinking skills in years gone by, how different our country might be. Zahawi probably wouldn’t feature prominently in it, and we wouldn’t have an incompetent compulsive liar as PM. (In the interests of political impartiality, I should point out that some people are Tories.)

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Good question. I’m not saying we should sit kids down in kindergarten and lecture them on Beyesian Analsysis, but I think saying that children are ruled by emotion is a bit too strong. They are, of course, highly emotional and irrational compared to most adults, and there are times when that is very evident, but there are also times when children exercise their reasoning: it’s often when they’re playing. We see them sitting quietly with their toys making up stories (series of events with cause and effect), or inventing ‘rules’ by which their characters have to play the game. Teddy is on the naughty step because he didn’t eat his breakfast. Peppa is going to work on the sparkly unicorn because her car has broken down. These rules – “because” – answer the child’s favourite question – “why?” – which demonstrates their natural thirst for reasons. These are the kinds of activities that develop a child’s brain in that logical facility. And educators can help that by using the play element of learning.

There is evidence that puberty brings a big challenge to rationality, as hormones begin surging, and teenagers often become unempathic and irrational (shock horror, hold the front page). So I imagine it may help them stay more stable and make better decisions if they have had education before that in formal logic or rational debate, critical thinking skills. It dovetails nicely with our information age, too, since logic is the basis of coding. And as adults – and voters – they’d be less swayed by vacuous promises or threats that appeal to their emotional response. Democracy depends on adults thinking critically, and if they haven’t learned to do that by the time they leave school, it’s too late.

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