Political impartiality in the classroom: what do I need to know?


The Department for Education (DfE) has published new guidance, including classroom scenarios, on the topic of political impartiality in the classroom.

This guidance is for all schools, including academies and independent schools. It does not cover early years settings, 16 to 19 academies. further education colleges or universities.

The DfE explains that the guidance:

  • Supports those working with and in schools to understand the relevant legal duties
  • Helps schools understand what they need to consider when teaching about political issues, using external agencies and in extra-curricular activities
  • Clarifies the role of the specific bodies and individuals subject to the legal duties

The DfE explains this guidance does not include any new statutory requirements and is based on legal duties on political impartiality that have been in place for many years.

We have already published another support article which explores if you can face disciplinary action at your school for expressing your personal political views

It explains that the 1996 Education Act states that governors, councils and heads must “forbid the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school.”

In this support article, we provide a summary of the guidance, outline the legal duties for schools and how schools can deal with concerns of political impartiality.

Political impartiality in the classroom: what does the law say?

The DfE explains that existing statutory requirements on political impartiality cover all schools, regardless of type or funding arrangement. This includes independent schools.

These legal duties mean schools:

  • Must prohibit the promotion of partisan political views
  • Should take steps to ensure the balanced presentation of opposing views on political issues when they are brought to the attention of pupils

For maintained schools, these legal duties are set out in Section 406 and Section 407 of the Education Act 1996. Most academies will also have a specific clause in their funding agreement which requires adherence to the same provisions.

For independent schools, the legal duties are set out in Part 2 of the Schedule to the Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations 2014. These requirements also apply to academies.

Legal duties on political impartiality do not supersede schools’ other statutory requirements. Schools should take a reasonable and proportionate approach to ensuring political impartiality, alongside their other responsibilities.

This includes legal requirements under the:

  • Equality Act 2010 (including the Public Sector Equality Duty for state-funded schools)
  • Human Rights Act 1998
  • Prevent duty

Schools are also required to actively promote the fundamental British values of:

  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Individual liberty
  • Mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs

Schools designated with a religious character are free to teach according to the tenets of their faith. We do not consider principles or views in line with these tenets to be covered by statutory requirements on political impartiality.

There are existing arrangements for the regulation of teachers’ professional conduct. Under the teachers’ standards, teachers must ensure that personal beliefs are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils’ vulnerability or might lead them to break the law.

Teachers can also be subject to a prohibition order if their actions or behaviours undermine fundamental British values.

The Secretary of State also has the power under section 128 of the Education and Skills Act 2008 to prohibit an unsuitable individual from participating in the management of independent schools, including academies. We have published guidance on barring unsuitable individuals from managing independent schools.

Political impartiality in the classroom: summary of the guidance

The DfE explains that the new guidance will help teachers and schools navigate issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the legacy of the British Empire or societal responses to racism in accordance with the law, which states that teachers must not promote partisan political views and should offer a balanced overview of opposing views when political issues are taught.

The scenarios included are designed to support an understanding of how schools’ legal duties on political impartiality can be met. This includes in difficult and sensitive circumstances where the boundaries of what is and isn’t appropriate and in line with the legal duties, may not be clear.

They are illustrative and not intended to be prescriptive guidance on which political issues schools should teach or specify set actions all schools must take.

Meeting the legal duties on political impartiality is possible with reasonable and proportionate steps. It will always rely on teachers and staff using their judgement and expertise effectively.

Some political issues will be more sensitive than others. It is important to remember that schools are free to include a full range of issues, ideas, and appropriate materials including where they are challenging and controversial.

Schools should focus on the needs of their pupils when deciding how to teach about controversial subjects.

They should also be mindful of their responsibility to promote respect and tolerance, including actively promoting fundamental British values such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs.

Concerns about political impartiality in the classroom

The DfE explains that often simple steps can be taken to address concerns. This might include clarification about the nature of teaching or assurances about any processes in place to ensure legal duties on political impartiality are being met.

In some cases, it may be appropriate for a school to take steps to ensure that pupils, who have been subject to imbalanced teaching, receive a balanced account of any political issues raised, as soon as possible. This may involve further teaching or some form of clarification.

For example, the following scenario:

Following a complaint, it becomes clear that during a lesson a teacher suggested to pupils that it is an objective fact that the political system of a certain country is the ‘fairest’ and ‘best’ in the world.

It may be advisable and proportionate to ask the teacher to clarify during their next lesson with this group that this is not an uncontested fact and was in fact their own personal partisan political view.

Where parents and carers remain dissatisfied, they can raise a formal complaint, in line with the school’s complaints procedure.

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