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Should teachers be allowed to teach about anti-capitalism?

The answer to that, in a free society is of course, yes.

The Department for Education in England has just issued new guidance to schools on the relationship, sex and health curriculum that includes a prohibition to… ‘under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances… This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme… Examples of extreme political stances include… a publicly stated desire to abolish capitalism…’ (This is more or less the edited version from The Guardian – the full, more contextualised version is below.)

The former Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, MP. said in response to the news: “On this basis it will be illegal to refer to large tracts of British history and politics including the history of British socialism, the Labour Party and trade unionism, all of which have at different times advocated the abolition of capitalism.”

That seems an obvious absurdity and I agree with McDonnell. In my lectures I am always banging on to teacher-trainees that to promote fundamental British values is not necessarily to respect ideas but necessarily to respect people.

Capitalism is an idea. It does not necessarily require nor deserve respect. Capitalists however, are people and whether you agree with their ideas or not, they deserve respect as a human right.

So the same is true with democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect, individual liberty and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs. These are ideas about values and children and students need to know why they are considered fundamental to society and not tangential. To know why these values are fundamental requires us to test their assumptions and ask questions of them – so that, ultimately one would hope, we can subscribe to them more fully.

But let’s just take a closer look at what the guidance actually says:

‘Many organisations actively promote external resources to schools. You should assess all resources carefully to ensure they are age appropriate, meet the outcome of the relevant part of the curriculum, and are in line with your school’s legal duties in relation to impartiality.

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to:

· a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections

· opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience

· the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications

· the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity

· a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property.’

I challenge the implication in this document that capitalism is a fundamental value alongside democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly etc. By introducing ideas to children of ‘abolishing or overthrowing capitalism’ one can introduce to them the ideas of democratic socialism and its history – which (sadly, in my view) has not been a history of unbridled success. To know socialism and its history is also to know its weaknesses.

However, allowing children to challenge the ideas of capitalism will probably result in many of them subscribing to it more ardently. Why? Because they have been allowed to test the arguments and see the strengths of the arguments on the one hand and the weaknesses of those arguments on the other - and then decide on balance. That’s rational.

The same goes for democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people of different faiths and beliefs. Testing these ideas results in greater subscription to their ethical and moral authority.

But all this requires rational argument and debate and we are living in times where rational argument and debate urgently need nurturing and practising. Schools are the ideal place to do start. Teachers are the models of the process.

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

You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.


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