by Lynda Goetz
Roedean, the prestigious private girls’ school in Brighton, announced recently that it is holding lessons on issues which will affect its pupils in later life: one of them is the menopause and the other is finance - investing wisely and making sure you have a decent pension. In fact, since 2019, the menopause has been included in the compulsory element of PSHE (Personal, Health, Social and Economic) education. Both matters seem eminently worthy of consideration. Women notoriously generally fail to secure as much in their pension pots as men and, although pensions and the menopause seem light years away when you are in your teens, being made aware of both early on must count as sensible preparation for life beyond school.
In Scotland, or at least in South Ayrshire, schools are seemingly more concerned that children should ‘read woke’ and study books which claim that racism was invented by white people and that it is impossible to be racist against white people. In Wales last year, a group of parents lost a legal challenge against teaching children about gender identity in primary schools. At the end of October, the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan sent out a letter to schools confirming that they should share RSHE (Relationships, Sex and Health Education) materials with parents, after concerns were expressed by MPs and parents that some teaching was inappropriate and that the material used was subject to copyright and could not be shown to parents. Apart from the obvious basics, what should schools be teaching children and how much should parents be involved?
The world has changed dramatically in so many ways since the turn of the century. A lot of what past generations had taken for granted has been turned on its head. Information is freely available to all, in ways more accessible than ever. All you need is a small device, called a phone, but which of course is so much more. Books, newspapers, journalists, libraries…who needs such things when your favourite celebrity actress or erstwhile footballer can pronounce on any subject to their millions of followers on social media and influence the thinking of those followers? Who needs to remember facts when a few taps on a screen can give you not only the information, but what all those influencers currently think of those facts and how they interpret them. The only problem with all this is how on earth do you teach independent thought and how do you explain the importance of debate, discussion and the art of civilised disagreement in a world that is so polarised? How do you underline the need for community IRL (in real life) when so many of the young live in a virtual world that is an echo chamber?
Of course, we are all predisposed to find like-minded souls, to seek out those who share our interests and our views, but it is also so important to be able to listen and to hear those who do not. Debate and discussion used to be part of education. They no longer are. As we have all witnessed in the last decade, the intolerance and polarisation has increased. Free speech is only allowed if you agree with the prevailing view. Protest is fine if you are protesting about the right things. Universities and even schools have become bastions of the illiberal left. Those who disagree are ‘cancelled’, ignored or accused of racism, transphobia, or ‘hate speech’, indeed anything to remove or silence them. How much of this is starting in schools and institutions and how in tune with the wider population are these institutions?
The last week has been a case in point. Amidst heightened tensions, the Metropolitan Police (the same force where officers took the knee for Black Lives Matter) have not only allowed the protests for Palestine to go ahead and turned a blind eye to obvious cases of anti-Semitism, they have at the same time actively discouraged others from waving British flags (for their own ‘safety’) or from putting up posters of Jewish hostages held in Gaza following the horrendous massacre by Hamas in Israel on October 7th. Free speech is vitally important to our democracy, the right to march probably less so, particularly when those who are marching do not, self-evidently in many cases, respect our country’s values but are merely taking advantage of them. When we have amongst us those who have been welcomed in, but who clearly hold our culture in contempt, we are surely entitled to say enough is enough? Our politicians, academics and institutions, in so many cases, seem to be unclear or undecided as to what is important.
It is important that our children are socialised, that they learn to interact with others and find those with whom they get on and to whom they relate. It is important that they find friends, that they value those friendships, that they do not bully or pick on those who are not their friends, that they learn tolerance and respect for others. It is equally important that they learn how to interpret facts and analyse information and that they recognise that others may not share their interpretation. To this end, it is equally important that teachers, from kindergarten to university, do not attempt to impose their own interpretation or world view onto those they are responsible for teaching. Too often in the last few decades, teachers have sought to impress their own ‘decolonising’ ideology, their own view of racism or their own ideas on gender identity onto impressionable minds. Children naturally look to teachers for information and guidance. It must surely be the responsibility of those who have gone into the teaching profession not to abuse that trust by attempting (as is the case under communist or autocratic regimes) to brainwash those in their care or under their tutelage. Teachers should not be condoning or encouraging confused children to conform to their ideas on gender identity; nor should they be teaching Critical Race Theory or ideas that racism cannot be perpetrated against white people (as notoriously voiced by Labour politician Diane Abbot earlier this year and American actress Whoopi Goldberg last year).
PHSE is, according to the Department for Education (DfE), “an important and necessary part of all pupils’ education”. Since 2020, under the Children and Social Work Act, it is taught right through school from primary onwards with certain elements being compulsory. The PSHE Association is provided with funds by the DfE and offers materials and advice on teaching the subject to all age groups. It aims to “help children and young people stay healthy, safe and prepared for life - and work - in modern Britain”. The letter sent out by the Education Secretary in October (following on from the Press Release on 31st March) was an important admission that all has not been well in the world of teaching RSHE, but parents are still awaiting the new statutory guidance which has been promised by the end of the year. Our teachers should not be able to hide behind legal arguments about materials brought into their schools with their blessing any more than our police should be able to hide behind legal arguments about their plainly biased advisors understanding of the word ‘jihad’ or of the meaning of anti-Semitic chants. A lot has changed in the last few decades and much of it for the good, but we must not lose sight of what is important and what we need to stand up for.