A critical reflection on the new PSHE guidelines
“Write hard and clear about what hurts” – Ernest Hemingway
I feel like I’m in something from Kafka.
Britain’s status quo is fragile and in constant need of reassurance and reinforcement. It seeks to remain unaccountable, unrepresentative and hoping to create an uncritical public who acquiesce to its every word. The winding down of daily COVID briefings is synonymous with a decade of politics that is driven to represent personal ideological gain and not in the best interests of the general public. However, September 24th marked a new chapter in the history of British education. The Department for Education published new guidance for leaders and teachers in setting the relationship, sex and health or PSHE curriculum.
I think it is important to say it like it is. There appears to be an ever-widening chasm between policymakers and teachers. The global pandemic was a clear opportunity to bridge this suspicion and work together to support our young people. However, I do believe the formation of the new PSHE frameworks are built upon this mistrust of our nations educators. Our professional discretion was totally rendered invisible over the past summer with the algorithms exam scandal. Teachers are micromanaged to the point of despair under our performative, autocratic, Ofsted-pleasing. Even with greater autonomy and privatisation, those in Westminster retain a vested interest in education. The current educational context is the lovechild of 150 years of political intervention in state education.
Yet, there is an underlying sentiment that the teaching profession is marred by a ‘misguided liberal lefty snowflake intelligentsia’. Where staffrooms are cesspits for socialism and education is losing its role as an Althusser-esque ‘ideological state apparatus’. This is neither true or remotely a reflection of a profession that under continuous pressure and scrutiny. I truly believe teachers are not class warriors who are intent on a Marxist revolution. Being honest, I think most of us just about survive everyday on the frontline and hoping to return to our loved ones safely. Far from the idea of beret wearing, banjo strumming, kumbaya-singing, Communist Manifesto preaching, Noam Chomsky following and Che Guevara admiring stereotypes – every teacher just wants to do their job to the best of their ability. They can and do leave their political allegiances at the door and aim to retain objectivity in their professional lives.
George Orwell in with his infinite wisdom is more relevant now than ever.
This is a brave new world. With no genuine opposition to government policies and where the ghost of Thatcherite neo-liberalism has manifested itself into every nook and cranny of society. This is a brave new world and what a time to be alive. As teachers return to schools, which were never truly closed during the pandemic, we have an Education Secretary who appears to have gone AWOL or in complete self-isolation and the new guidelines are evidential of the chasm between political rhetoric and pedagogical reality. ‘Common sense’ appears to be the yardstick of policy making. The same ‘common sense’ that is rarely found in a country where people are still unwilling to wear facemasks and acknowledge that we are amidst a global pandemic. Also, that it’s ‘common sense’ that we should uphold our democratic right to protest against injustice but not ‘common sense’ to say that Black lives matter. Common sense, hey?
Broad and Balanced
What does broad and balanced actually mean? Could something so obviously clear be made to seem nebulous by policymakers, like, say, the phrase ‘world-beating’. Broad and balanced at the very core for me, as a Sociology teacher is about presenting evidence. It is about presenting both sides of every story, its merits and pitfalls and objectively allow students to access a plethora of worldviews. Our role as teachers is to present the arguments/facts and empower our students with the thinking skills to assess the validity of the information we have presented them. Broad and balanced does not mean narrow and partisan. No teacher with a vested interest in improving the life chances of young people peddles personal agendas in favour of providing a balanced worldview. Objectivity and teaching go hand-in-hand.
According to the DfE (2019) themselves “Ofsted inspectors will spend less time looking at exam results and test data, and more time considering how a nursery, school, college or other education provider has achieved their results. That is, whether they are the outcome of a broad, rich curriculum and real learning, or of teaching to the test and exam cramming.” The new RSHE guidelines are incredibly contradictory of the ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum Ofsted themselves waxed lyrical about back in 2019.
We are all a by-product of our social surroundings. We are hold innate biases and wear the weight of what we have seen and heard. Being ‘apolitical’ is certainly desired in education however, the new the relationship, sex and health guidelines not only add to the straitjacketed view of education. This framework is evidence of a status quo that is fragile and has a vested interest in creating compliance rather than liberating young people with a broad and balanced curriculum.
New Frameworks and New Issues
Reading the new frameworks gave me flashbacks to George Orwell’s 1984 or Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Both incredibly powerful books are about authoritarian and suppressive regimes which police and pacify their inhabitants. Whereas 1984 is about the Big Brother-esque nature of social order in creating uniform conformity. In Kafka’s, The Castle follows the main protagonist ‘K’ who is entering a village dictated by a despotic and draconian state. Can this dystopian literature be used as a template to understand the new insidious DfE guidelines? The entire framework is full of contradiction, loose-ends and edu-jargon but I would like to add a critical analysis to three elements in particular.
Promoting the overthrown of capitalism – Let’s not be daft here and bring Corbynism into discussions. If capitalism is this utopia then why do we have such stark inequalities in society? If capitalism really should not be critiqued or any alternatives be taught, then why have we had to endure a decade of austerity? Capitalism has failed and in its current neo-liberal phase, capitalism has created both great wealth and also inequalities and injustices. If we embed pro-capitalism ideals into the curriculum, we are explicitly teaching students that there are no viable alternatives. Again, I am not talking about the Robin Hood socialism but how have countries like Sweden used elements of socialism and capitalism to create a fairer society for all? This uncritical dogma of not assessing alternatives to current economic systems fails to acknowledge the advantages and disadvantages of other economic structures which could someday make Britain a better place for us all. As a Sociology teacher, how do I teach about Marxism? These frameworks may neatly fit the ideological ties of the government but do not neatly fit into the classroom realities of so many teachers. Also, just to add, point one is quite literally undermined by point two. As surely not teaching viable alternatives to capitalism contradicts the notion of “opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience”. The fragility of preventing young people to learn about alternative economic structures is alarming. To critique and overthrow are two very different things but in the era of anti-expert, who can tell the difference?
Victim narratives – The frameworks clearly state “promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society.” Who is in the position to decide which of these ‘victim narratives’ is acceptable to teach? Having taught the Holocaust and Slavery many times, where do I draw the fine line? Denying victimhood and the existence of these narratives is disingenuous and misleading. History comes with both heroes and victims, our young people need to know this. The idea of being able to uniquely cherry-pick which histories are worthy of time and space in our curriculum itself is a bastion of division and harmful to British society. Young people need to know why the world is shaped the way it is. Our students need to know that racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ageism, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination make up the life experiences of so many our fellow British citizens. This is not promoting victimhood, it is giving victims the time and space they have been deprived of for so long. Britain is a deeply unequal and divided society, so how do we challenge this? The elephant is in the room, the longer we tip-toe around it, the more the social distance between us will grow. Fundamental British values is all about respect and tolerance but ignoring historically disadvantaged groups, excluding them from the conversation and curriculum, it is also divisive. Where do we draw the line? Within the framework there is also the notion of “accusations against state institutions”. So, do we stop teaching about the MacPherson Report following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence? This uncritical gaze at history does not serving the needs of the multicultural society. If we don’t hold institutions that have been historical foundations for inequality accountable, how on earth is this a democracy?
Extreme political stances – I am in total agreement that we do need to safeguard and protect our young people from such views. However, simply denying their existence does not mean they will disappear into thin air. I remember about Nazism and the awful tragedies of World War Two. This was an extreme worldview which required both context, analysis and for students to engage with it for the purpose of the exam specification. For far too long, taboos have manifested across education and teachers have felt uncomfortable holding conversations that truly matter. However, holding these political views accountable in the safe space of a classroom lead by a highly-educated, incredibly skilled and very talented reflective practitioner, this is where we can challenge these taboos and worldviews. If they are left unchallenged and we fail to acknowledge them, how can our students decide if they are wrong? Again, this is not calling for every single political view to be broadcasted but rather a reflective dialogue to be held to educate our students. Opening up intellectual spaces should be on the agenda to protect our young people. Ducking and dodging such discussions pushes them away from the arena of education and into dangerous underground places where our vulnerable young people are at a greater risk. Leslie R. Crutchfield in her How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t, notes the dangers of failing to acknowledge suppressed voices and how they can later be more divisive than political parties. There is incredible merit in trusting our nations educators.
After creating this yesterday, it’s true. As a Sociology teacher, how do I adopt these new frameworks into my practice. My subject centres on evaluation and critical analysis.
The new RSHE frameworks.
With any new initiative or framework, we have to ask yourselves how it will impact on our students and staff. Also, who has mandated these new guidelines and whose interests do they serve? Uncritical acceptance at a time where compliance is the norm cannot be internalised for our students. The RSHE element for all our subjects is so intricate and important. These new guidelines are nebulous, woolly and really, where do we start? Does our English department begin to dispose of every copy of An Inspector Calls or Animal Farm? Teachers need guidance and not more authoritarian policies that are ideologically leaning rather than researched informed. Every subject deserves time and space to develop a child’s knowledge and skills. A ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum incorporates multiple ideas and world-views that we must present objectively and in an accessible way for our students to engage with.
Tell me an educational policy that hasn’t been formed on ideological foundations. What was ‘apolitical’ about?
-Performance related pay
-9-1 GCSE grading
-Obsession with PISA
-Tripling tuition fees
If you want teachers to refrain from political ties, cut your own during policy making. All driven by ideology and thinly veiled under the veneer of ‘standards’. It is simple, policymakers should not be reflecting their ideological fragilities onto our young people.
I want to end with a conversation I had with my little brother which went something like this.
Me: “Honestly, reading these guidelines from the DfE is so scary. I feel like I’m in something from Kafka.”
Little brother: “Kafka? Looks more like H&M to me, Shuaib.”
With the ‘common sense’ wailing uncritical masses should never come uncritical classes. Why should blind compliance and passivity be the norm in a world where so much is so obviously wrong? I have work to do with my younger siblings too!
Thank you for reading.
Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum – New frameworks – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/plan-your-relationships-sex-and-health-curriculum
Ofsted’s new inspection arrangements to focus on curriculum, behaviour and development – https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ofsteds-new-inspection-arrangements-to-focus-on-curriculum-behaviour-and-development
Leslie R. Crutchfield, (2018) How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t