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Should we engage school pupils in propaganda exercises?

Let me put my cards on the table. I was a ‘lefty’ teacher in Hackney and Tottenham for twenty-odd years in the late 1970s, 80s and 90s when some of the most contentious issues of modern British history were being hotly and sometimes violently, played-out: Thatcherism, inner city riots, the Falklands war, the miners’ strike, the poll tax and more.

I myself was guilty of politicking and grandstanding on many occasions, holding my impressionable young pupils hostage to my passionately held views about the wickedness of racism, the social injustice at the root of inner city riots or the evils of apartheid in South Africa. At the time I thought I was perfectly justified. Indeed, I thought it was part of my job to open the eyes of my pupils to issues that were urgent and critical.

When the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 I even found, or rather contrived, official justification for promoting my views with the children in my classes on the basis that they promoted the requirement to provide a ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural education’. [*]

But I want to ask you a question: were these expressions of personal belief unethical?

I ask it because a friend sent me a video [†] made in an east London primary school, directed by a filmmaker who has worked in Hollywood and funded by Citizens UK, a civic and community rights organisation. The video makes a call for greater recognition of low-paid workers during the COVID-19 pandemic by awarding them the National Living Wage. After watching the video, I agreed with the London Mayor Sadiq Khan that it was ‘brilliant and uplifting’ – and I must declare, I agreed with all the sentiments and calls to action contained in it.

However, if anyone challenged me about it, I think I would be hard pressed not to admit that it was also an example of primary school children being dragooned into producing a blatant piece of political propaganda.

How do we draw the dividing lines that separate not just morally, but ethically justifiable reasons for engaging children in activities that build civic values and virtues on the one hand; while on the other, avoid manipulating them to imbibe and accept the political, cultural and social identities of our own preference?

If we can't do that, we shouldn't be surprised if other people come along and decide to use children to make videos to promote a view we find objectionable or even abhorent.

Have you used your classroom to laud Black Lives Matter, condemn Donald Trump, made clear where you stand on Brexit or what you think of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic? We live in a society that allows you - and the teaching profession - the liberty do all of these things if you want to.

Just make sure that the basis on which you have engaged your pupils can be justified both morally and ethically.

The questions you will constantly need to ask yourself are: What civic values are being promoted by this engagement? What personal virtues are being developed? What kind of character traits do I want children to emerge with from this process?

Your views, preferences and identities are completely immaterial to these questions.

If you want to explore the idea of values, virtues, character and 'fundamental British values' more, then watch this free sample video.

You can access the the full video-module here

It includes 90-mins of HD quality video and a full range of ideas about how to teach 'fundamental British values'


· additional learning materials for extra study

· a self assessment exercise to test your knowledge, and

· a completion certificate that you can add to your ‘Evidence Folder’

is available at the newteacherstalk website

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and head teacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching ethics and professionalism and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can also follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk

[*] DfE guidance (for England) sets out a list of character-building requirements that a spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) education should provide. It should: 1. enable students to develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence; 2. enable students to distinguish right from wrong and to respect the civil and criminal law of England; 3. encourage students to accept responsibility for their behaviour, show initiative, and to understand how they can contribute positively to the lives of those living and working in the locality of the school and to society more widely; 4. enable students to acquire a broad general knowledge of and respect for public institutions and services in England; 5. further tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions by enabling students to acquire an appreciation for and respect for their own and other cultures; 6. encourage respect for other people, and 7. encourage respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic processes, including respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in England. [†] St Antony’s Catholic Primary School, Newham. 'Another Round of Applause' video


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