How to tackle difficult socio-political issues in schools

Often schools appear to be in the firing line for many issues which trend in society and the media. Schools are required to be all things to all people and right the wrongs of society as well adequately prepare young people for life beyond school. In my role as school improvement adviser, I come across many tricky and contentious issues schools have had to deal with sensitively and cautiously. Many times, the advice and guidance from the DfE are not always helpful. Schools sometimes choose to do nothing, as a result. This, unfortunately, is likely to be to our peril.

The DfE has issued guidance to headteachers about their duty to be impartial. Teachers must not be seen to influence political and social viewpoints or share their own stance on sensitive and contentious subjects. The guidance says that, “it is important to note that many ongoing ethical debates and topics will constitute a political issue”. Schools were told that 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”. Schools with a religious ethos or character have more leeway to promote religious teachings but they must make it clear for pupils that the law, such as the Equalities Act 2010, takes precedence over religious teachings- creationism vs evolution, for example. Some religious teachings towards LGBT legitimacy, for example, conflict with British values and British law.

I have supported and inspected many faith schools where these obvious tensions arise. The schools that tackle these issues well do not shy away from the tension. They help pupils to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously and embrace the core values of respect and tolerance which override any ideas of prejudice or bigotry. Pupils in these schools tell me that it is ok to disagree with someone’s chosen lifestyle but that doesn’t mean they should not be respected and protected under the law. Often, the pressure in these schools comes from the community and parents. We cannot forget the terrible consequences of the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham in 2013.  Headteachers’ ability to manage the pressures from the community can be extremely difficult and sensitive. Independent schools have the added financial pressure if parents decide to vote with their feet. Schools that work constructively with forward thinking local faith leaders find that religious and secular messages can be communicated more effectively to the school and wider community.

In late October early November, headteachers in England received a strong message about the dangers of appearing partisan in the midst of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. The unequivocal message from the government made clear that schools must not support or be seen to support terrorist organisations. The Middle East conflict is probably as polarising as you can get (barring, of course, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland). With little guidance as to how schools should tackle the horrors of what pupils are seeing on the news daily, many school leaders have decided to do nothing. Talking about this subject is banned. Understandably, leaders believe that in that way there is little risk of offending anyone.

However, this is precisely the time to share, talk and listen. Schools should be the one place where pupils can test out their ideas, start to form a world view and hear narratives that may be in conflict with their peers or community, safely. Schools need to think hard about how they can do this well but do this they must. Driving difficult issues underground is the breeding ground for extremism, bigotry and conflict. Those wishing to sew division and hatred thrive in these conditions. Our most important moral purpose as educators is to prepare young people for living in the 21st century in peace and harmony.

So how can schools undertake this difficult task?

In recent years schools were placed in difficult situations when pupils wished to join in the political activism promoted by prominent people such as Greta Thumberg. The school’s curriculum helped to raise awareness about the threats to our planet and the long-term problems of using fossil fuels, for example Yet, the calls to peacefully march in protest were met with controversy and condemnation across the media. It is confusing for young people. It is tricky for schools. On the one hand schools should be loathe to dampen pupils’ passion and awareness about the environmental problems we’re facing but on the other hand they have a legal duty to encourage full attendance and respecting the rule of law. Ofsted inspectors have been given guidance about how to navigate these murky waters when inspecting schools. We have to be on the look out for leadership policy or decisions which may inadvertently support contentious views such as those related to gender and sex, extremist groups and any promoted views which might incite hatred or breaches of the law. This is perfectly understandable. The previous HMCI said that in doing so, schools faced the difficult task of avoiding “on the one hand being damned for being intolerant or on the other being slammed for being woke… We want schools to encourage children to become engaged citizens without tipping over the line of impartiality.”

In schools where there is a predominance of one religious or cultural group among staff or pupils, the job of schools to maintain balance and encourage impartiality become even more problematic, especially when tensions are running high. The social media influences and misinformation further polarises attitudes and views. Meta’s algorithms further deepen entrenched views. In a couple of schools I support (one primary and one secondary), leaders decided to tackle the topic of the Middle East conflict head on. Leaders could not ignore the impact these events were having on pupils and noticed worrying consequences. These included emotional trauma, anger, racism and bigotry. As a result, they made it their priority to understand the historical, social and political issues in the region. The history department played an important role in educating all teachers. The department collapsed their own curriculum to deliver a history lesson about the Middle East conflict to all pupils in an age appropriate way. Adapted materials from the GCSE course on the Arab-Israeli conflict came in handy. The lesson incorporated the geographical development of state and peoples dating back from 3000 BC, looking at different perspectives. These schools took advice from prominent and well regarded Jewish and Middle East scholars. The schools also asked for support from parents to create a working group. In this way they could listen to concerns by parents and gain their support. A pupil working group was formed to discuss the best way to deliver this education. It is much easier to temper heightened tensions in smaller groups. Importantly, these schools strengthened the school’s education about the history of antisemitism. The Year 9 history curriculum lends itself well to this. Being transparent with all stakeholders about the parameters that schools must work within and sharing the legislation that govern Teachers’ Standards and DfE regulations, is also very helpful. This might help to explain to pupils and parents why teachers seem not to have a personal opinion on these contentious issues. One school drew on the resources from ‘Solutions not Sides’ organisation set up to inform rather than divide young people. These steps to raise awareness and educate pupils about the different perspectives is vital in schools of religious character, schools that have pupils from cultural groups affected by the conflict AND those schools that have seemingly no direct connection. It is our duty to help pupils to be more informed global citizens.

Another aspect of the support some schools have provided, especially for those schools with pupils whose families have been directly affected, is specialist mental health support. Providing a space for pupils to express their feelings and process the trauma is very important. For some, humanitarian charity donations and fund raising activities have also helped to focus energies.

What the new statutory guidance says

There have been recent updates to the Prevent duty and the IT filtering and monitoring guidance which offer some suggestions as to how schools may tackle potential threats and risks of extremism. This includes creating environments where extremist ideologies are challenged and are not permitted to flourish. The guidance suggests that schools should engender safe environments in which pupils can debate and discuss different narratives. However, this does require staff to be mindful of their statutory duties to remain impartial. Schools should be vigilant to radicalising ideologies such as antisemitism, anti-establishment rhetoric and religious or ethnic superiority narratives. Schools can promote resilience to extremism among pupils by actively promoting the knowledge, skills and values to prepare them for life in modern Britain in all subjects. This should be a culture across the school and not ‘one-off’ lessons. The DfE guidance ‘Education Against Hate’ provides useful guidance for schools. Reducing permissive environments should be the driving motive when considering the culture and ethos of the school. Systems and processes to prevent radicalisation such as risk assessments and working closely with local partners should be robust and effective.

In summary…

  • Ensure that difficult contentious socio-political are addressed directly and not swept under the carpet. Create the conditions where permissive environments are challenged and eradicated.
  • Ensure staff at all levels are adequately informed about their duties to be impartial; trained to understand the range of perspectives on different issues; are provided with clear guidance to help them respond to contentious issues (counter narrative understanding).
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for pupils to discuss and debate issues in a safe environment
  • Make sure that systems to monitor potential extremist behaviours are in place and checked.
  • Draw upon well regarded organisations to plan and address controversial issues
  • Use religious leaders to support the culture of respect and tolerance
  • Review the curriculum to deepen pupils’ knowledge about other faiths, cultures and histories to promote tolerance, empathy and understanding.


Home | SNS (

Solutions Not Sides: resources for discussing Israel and Palestine in schools – Educate Against Hate

1680a12734 ( (Learning how to handle controversial issues…)

Political impartiality in schools – GOV.UK (

Meeting digital and technology standards in schools and colleges – Filtering and monitoring standards for schools and colleges – Guidance – GOV.UK (

Prevent and controversial issues | Association for Citizenship Teaching (





Please share this post