This post is from Sarah Pavey, one of the Information Literacy Group’s School representatives.
On 17th February 2022, the UK Government issued new guidance to state sector schools and academies for the teaching of sensitive and controversial topics in the classroom and in extra-curricular events (DfE, 2022). The guidance contains no further legal obligations than those set out in the Education Act (HM Government, 1996). It is simply advice on how to deal with delivery and the Department states it is not designed to curtail the teaching of such subjects. Indeed, the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi explains “no subject should be off limits, but teaching must be impartial” (Richardson, 2022). The documentation refers constantly to teachers and to those higher up the pecking order in school management but there is no mention of the school library or the school librarian. Yet surely this is a place in school where you might find displays and resources not only on political issues but also on wider social issues such as climate change, women’s equality or LGBTQ+ rights. Surely these topics promote conversation and discussion within that same location and yet it appears the school librarian is not part of the remit of these guidelines. How strange when maybe the school librarian should be at the forefront of media and information literacy (MIL) understanding which informs such debate.
Some well-known names have commented on these proposals and not all are in favour of what is recommended. The National Education Union is critical, feeling that the guidance adds “new layers of mystification and complexity” which could lead to avoidance of addressing such issues. Conversely, Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders welcomes the guidance, saying it comes at a time when “young people are exposed to a swirl of misinformation online, and an increasingly toxic discourse on social media”. But Liz Moorse CEO of the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT) points out that without discussion in the safety of a classroom the students will find information themselves on an unregulated internet. She also suggests that few teachers receive formal training on MIL (Richardson, 2022).
With a National Curriculum in England which relies on rote learning, teachers seldom have the opportunity to practice MIL competencies aside from the minority teaching the Citizenship syllabus. Even within this new guidance, the Government suggest that teachers should stick to factual information only, when teaching younger students and not stray into opinion, even if that is unbiased. On the other hand, if MIL is rightly seen as a core part of school librarian’s role, should they not be (at least in part) responsible for offering support to both staff and students navigating a digital world of potential disinformation, misinformation and malinformation to help them stay within the guidelines? Schools are concerned because parents and guardians may complain and even take legal action if they fear their children are being exposed to information they deem to be unsuitable or inflammatory. For example, there was a famous case in 2007 when a parent suggested Al Gore’s climate change documentary “An inconvenient truth” was biased and political (BAILII, 2008) – the challenge was rejected. Currently, albeit in the USA, there is an example of such parent power raging and threatening school librarians with legal action over purchasing and loaning some fiction books to students (Zurcher, 2022). But will our Government pick up on this and start targeting our school libraries despite our omission in this guidance at present? Parents can bring a lot of influence to bear and with an ignorance of MIL a knee jerk reaction to quell their fears is often the immediate response made by those in power.
However, maybe as school librarians, we need to set an example. Do we think, when we are putting together a display, about who will be looking at it? If it is designed for younger students do we comply with this new guidance and promote factual content rather than opinion? Do we consider the images as well as the text we are using and how they might project a specific interpretation which maybe does not comply? We live in a multicultural society and enjoy celebrating citizenship through events such as Black History Month, but we need to think carefully about the material we use. For example, we should not refer to organisations such as Black Lives Matter without making it explicit that this is a campaign group so that readers can understand there is an agenda in what the group says. If we invite authors to our library, can we ensure that they do not speak to promote a political viewpoint, even if their book touches on such issues? When we talk to students and staff in our libraries are we mindful not to express our own take on sensitive issues or political leanings without offering alternatives?
The new guidelines are specific about teaching bias and also guarding against subliminal and explicit campaigning by external speakers but as librarians should we be more careful about our resources too? Should we be paying attention to how these are classified and grouped on our shelves so that a range of opinion is always an obvious choice? Sometimes this might be difficult given the 19th century restrictions of classification systems. It is difficult to know where such prohibition and censorship begins and ends. At present it is unlikely any school library in England would be visited by an inspection team investigating this aspect …but in the future?
The complexity of this issue, the confusion for teachers delivering the Curriculum and parental influence only serves to point out the need for more emphasis to be placed on MIL within the general population. If MIL was part of the learning canon from the earliest years, as in many other countries, then everyone would be more aware of these issues. Much of the advice offered by this new guidance would be redundant because having the skills to unpick bias and handle information with confidence would be fundamental life competencies. Sadly, we are not likely to reach this utopia any time soon, despite the best efforts of the Media and Information Literacy Alliance (MILA, 2022), so as school librarians all we can do is raise awareness of how we can comply to the new guidance amongst our teaching colleagues and show we have a vital role to play as information specialists.
BIALII (2008) Dimmock vs Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Available at: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2007/2288.html
DfE (2022) Guidance: Political impartiality in schools. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/political-impartiality-in-schools/political-impartiality-in-schools
HM Government (1996) Education Act, 1996. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/56/contents
Media & Information Literacy Alliance (2022) Home page. Available at: https://mila.org.uk
Richardson, H. (2022) Schools in England given guidance to avoid biased teaching. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-60405521
Zurcher, A. (2022) Why are certain school books being banned in the US? Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-60261660