Teachers are reluctant to talk about politics in the classroom for fear of being accused of showing bias, says a report by school inspectors today. Their reticence is damaging the delivery of lessons on citizenship, which was made a compulsory part of the school curriculum in 2002 by Labour.
The report, by the education standards watchdog Ofsted, said some schools were still making no effort to teach the subject even though eight years had elapsed since it had become mandatory. One of the key elements of citizenship is teaching pupils about Parliament and party politics to prepare them to take a full part in British democracy. "Knowledge of how government works at different levels, from the local to the international, and an understanding of the nature of Parliamentary democracy are key concepts of citizenship education," the report says.
However it adds: "Citizenship involves the understanding of party politics but this is something that teachers often shy away from – possibly because of the understandable concern that they will be perceived to demonstrate bias."
Instead mock school elections are often held in which pupils are encouraged to make up their own parties rather than represent the views of the real ones. John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary school heads, said teachers' reluctance to broach the subject was likely to date back to the Thatcher era, when schools were put under an obligation to take a fair and balanced approach to presenting politics in the classroom.
"The trouble is that their perception of what has been a fair and balanced lesson might not appear like that when a child reports on what happened to their parents," he said. "Schools don't want the bad publicity of being perceived to have been biased."
However, he conceded that teaching pupils about the workings of British democracy was essential in engaging their interest in how it worked.
The issue is likely to arise in thousands of schools in the run-up to the general election amid fears that a golden opportunity to focus children's minds on the way democracy works may be lost if delivery is not improved.
John Bangs, assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said one of the reasons for teachers' reluctance was because they had not been trained in how to deliver the subject.
The Ofsted report went on to say that the teaching of citizenship was good in about half of the 91 schools surveyed. In one in three it was satisfactory. In 10 schools achievement was inadequate.
"In these (10) schools, there were significant gaps in the students' knowledge and understanding, particularly in the key area of government and politics... This was the result of inadequate teaching or an inadequate curriculum or both.
"There remain schools where leaders have done little or nothing to respond to a national curriculum requirement that has now been in place for seven years. Some with satisfactory provision have achieved compliance (with their legal duty) but, as yet, have gone no further in improving that provision."
Those that were merely satisfactory, says the report, "did not give enough attention to the key area of political understanding", it adds.
The teaching of citizenship and democratic values was handled better in primary schools, it said. "Nine of the 23 (primary) schools visited were outstanding in terms of the overall effectiveness of their provision for citizenship: 12 were good and the remaining two were satisfactory. The strengths observed in pupils' achievements in citizenship included their understanding of rights and responsibilities, the environment and sustainability."
However, in secondary schools, inspectors at one school were told the reason they liked the subject was because they did not have to write anything. Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, said: "It is important that the good practice featured in the report is replicated more widely."
The report recommends there should be no let-up in providing in-service training courses to help teachers deliver the subject.
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