Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has said schools and colleges should maintain impartiality when addressing controversial subjects.
Speaking at a conference organised by the Office for Students, Spielman urged teachers to take particular care when speaking about hot button topics such as gender and race.
Last year, Ofsted admitted that school staff have sometimes failed to show “political neutrality” when teaching on “contentious issues” due to confusion over equalities legislation.
Spielman told the delegates: “Schools and colleges, like universities, have to tread a careful path through the whole landscape of equalities and rights”.
She said that in doing so they faced the difficult task of avoiding “on the one hand being damned for being intolerant or on the other being slammed for being woke”.
She added: “We want schools to encourage children to become engaged citizens without tipping over the line of impartiality.”
Spielman’s comments come weeks after the Government issued guidance to schools in England on their legal duties to maintain political impartiality in teaching and extra-curricular activities.
The guidance explains that “it is important to note that many ongoing ethical debates and topics will constitute a political issue”. Schools are told they “must not promote partisan political views in teaching” but should rather “present different views on political issues in a fair and dispassionate way, avoiding bias”.
The Christian Institute’s Education Officer, John Denning, welcomed the new guidance: “Every year, The Institute is contacted by hundreds of parents, teachers and governors concerned about schools promoting views with which they profoundly disagree. Christian views have been marginalised, leaving some pupils feeling demonised for the views they hold.
“This helpful guidance reminds schools of the need to be balanced when dealing with issues such as marriage and transgender ideology. Children must be encouraged to think critically, not spoon fed the latest ideological fad.”
In July, the education watchdog’s Director for Corporate Strategy, Chris Jones, said the Equality Act had been “contentious from the outset”.
Jones accepted that “political sensitivities” in relation to gender and sexual identity had made it difficult for schools to “handle equalities well”.
“For example”, he explained, “school staff can occasionally confuse the legal, the moral and the political, and so (often inadvertently) bring overtly political materials into their curriculum and teaching without acknowledging it as such”.
Department of Education guidance issued in 2020 states: “Schools are advised to consider the range of issues on which there could be political views, which may include global affairs, equalities issues, religion and economics.”