Pupils and Politics

I stand in front of a class of twenty-seven fifteen year olds with my heart in my mouth and a strange, slow panic building up in my stomach.  Not because I am an inexperienced teacher, or that the class are particularly challenging. No. It is in fact the lesson that I am about to teach that has given me a real sense of anxiety and dread. I look around the room at the mixture of eager and vaguely despondent faces and wonder whether or not I can go through with it. Do I dare, considering the backlash I could receive from the school, or worse, the parents? How will the students themselves react? Has anyone ever spoken to them like this, or even done anything like this with them before? I take a deep breath, gather myself, feel the fear… and do it anyway.

At this point you may be wondering what on earth is going on. Well that’s the idea. I’m an English teacher and so I felt the need to start off this article with a bit of a narrative hook. But the above description is by no means fictitious; I did actually put myself in quite literally the firing line last week by boldly adapting a Citizenship lesson to include a balanced argument on immigration and multiculturalism. Still not making sense? Well, perhaps if I tell you that the original lesson was basically designed to force students to accept that there really is only one satisfactory stance to take on those topics- that they are both good, positive and anyone who disagrees is essentially a racist- then perhaps you’ll understand what I’m up against as an educator.

Political bias is an issue that has bedevilled higher education establishments since time immemorial. Friends in their fifties tell me about their experience of lecturers openly turning on anyone with ‘right-wing’ views, and I had a similar experience myself at University, where I saw certain students humiliated and belittled for daring to question the comfortable, socialist status quo within the lecture theatre. However, not long after starting my career as a secondary school teacher I noticed that this issue starts to affect young people long before they make that leap into adulthood and head off to college. I suppose, as someone who took little or no interest in politics until my mid-twenties, I didn’t really notice it at the time.

The Citizenship lesson in question was one of the most unbalanced; politically biased I had ever seen. As aforementioned, it was focused very much on one side of the argument, and culminated in a task whereby the students had to write a mini essay on why multiculturalism is positive and how good immigration is for the country. In addition to this, there were several slides detailing examples of white British people committing racially-aggravated crimes against ethnic minorities.

My decision to turn the lesson into a balanced examination of both sides of the argument was, I feel, a bold move. It is so easy to be labelled a racist these days, and schools are as politically correct as is possible to be. I feared that in delivering a lesson where I allowed the students to explore and discuss the negative impact of multiculturalism and immigration in addition to the positive aspects, I would be setting myself up for disaster. Thankfully, there has been no backlash as of yet. But this whole scenario served to remind me of the small-minded world of education, where an adult worries that in delivering something balanced and factual, they could be at risk of being hauled in front of a disciplinary committee. It is simply absurd.

As was bound to happen given the fact that the referendum is happening this summer, schools are now broaching the subject of the European Union during Citizenship lessons. This has brought with it a whole plethora of brain-washing opportunities, including lessons designed only to highlight the benefits of EU membership. Recently, an ex-student from my first school contacted me with concerns about the way the question of the EU referendum was being handled at his school. He is a sixth form student and therefore of course eligible to vote on the 23rd of June. The student in question was keen to inform me of his experience as a Eurosceptic sixth former.

‘A few weeks ago our school hosted a PSHE day, were we spent the majority of the day studying politics to make people more aware of the subject. I was part of the minority of students who has their own opinions on politics and in this case my party allegiances reside with UKIP. What was decided was that the sixth form students would agree or disagree with statements shown from a quiz that would tell us which party to vote for based on the statements, so as you can imagine certain patterns occurred with people voting to agree or disagree on statements. However when it came to the two statements “Britain should leave the EU immediately” and “Migrants should only be allowed into the country if they have certain skills”, I was the only person of the entire sixth form to agree on these statements. What then ensued afterwards, and continues to this day, is that I am often compared to extreme right wing party supporters, such as the Nazi party and I am often accused of being racist – which is far from the truth as well as being frequently attacked by other students for my political beliefs. What bothers me is that certain staff members are influencing the opinion of students, i.e. they should argue for remaining in the EU as it is beneficial for such a reason [..] It bothers me that the school does not seem to welcome both sides of the argument and simply attacks an individual for having his opinion and this has now become the accepted mantra of the students.’

How is it seemingly acceptable for an eighteen year old sixth-form student to be attacked and alienated in his own school, simply because he holds an opinion that doesn’t match that of his teachers and the majority of other students? It seems to me that there is a political bullying culture in schools. You could argue that this is inevitable when it comes to discussions of any sort; you will often find a gang mentality amongst teenagers. But when this culture appears to be encouraged and at times even instigated by teaching staff themselves, that’s when the alarm bells should be ringing.

Students are suffering at the hands of the left-leaning educational establishment, and this is something that is totally unacceptable. And by that I mean no student should be forced to adopt a certain mind-set, or be ridiculed for having opposing beliefs to their teacher or their school in general. As a teacher, I believe our job is to deliver informative, balanced and un-biased lessons on politics and current affairs. I believe it is our duty to help students develop into confident, open-minded thinkers able to formulate their own conclusions. Teachers should encourage students to look at the cold hard facts rather than omitting certain awkward truths, then accept differing opinions and encourage healthy and lively debates. We should not be attempting to use our privileged positions as educators to brainwash the future generation.