Who should we invite into our schools?

This wasn’t intended to be a post about whether Jordan Peterson is an appropriate visitor to MCS or any other school but I’m going to get unavoidably sucked in later. However, @oldandrewuk raised a much better question that I’ve been thinking about quite hard and I wanted to write down my thoughts.

Here is his question:

Twitter always lacks nuance so here are three clarifications about my thinking:

  1. Old Andrew did say ‘blacklisting’ and I interepreted that to mean “not inviting them into school”. I’m not thinking of some kind of massive extension to the Barred List. God forbid!
  2. I don’t think it’s objective at all, or ever could be. This is a decision for headteachers and governing bodies, in context, and sometimes choosing where to draw the line will not always be an easy thing, as we saw at John Fisher School.
  3. I think there are some people who shouldn’t be anywhere near schools. For others I think it depends what they are doing in school. There’s a big difference between handing out prizes at sports day and speaking in assembly.
  4. I think free speech is a separate issue. Just because I think something is unacceptable in school doesn’t mean I think it’s unacceptable everywhere.

So, having done some hard thinking, this is where I ended up.

I think anyone advocating violence or illegal activity shouldn’t be in school. I’m aware that would have barred suffragettes, and I think there is a place in the world for radical action, but I don’t think anyone engaged in this should be in school, although I can probably still think of exceptions. Same goes for anyone with a recordable criminal conviction unless turning round their life is what they are about. In all these cases I just think the role-model issues are too problematical.

I think anyone with views that, if implemented, would breach the Equality Act (2010) shouldn’t be in schools. There are some fine lines here. Arguing that gender pay gaps do not necessarily indicate gender discrimination does not meet this criteria. Arguing that it is acceptable for small businesses to not employ someone because they might need maternity leave, does meet this criteria. Sometimes this distinction is more blurred. Just because something is currently illegal, doesn’t mean we can’t all debate whether laws should change. Conversely, I’m not persuaded that there is ever a case now for discussing IQ differences between ethnic groups, even if someone is not directly suggesting discrimination on that basis. I don’t think I’d want someone in school that couldn’t see why not.

It’s my final criteria that I find more difficult to justify. “Denial of well-established science or history (holocaust, evolution, anthropogenic climate change, vaccine safety, etc.)”. I think I understand Old Andrews concern. Are we in danger of just saying no-one in school unless we like their politics? I’d say, ‘yes’, we always run that risk. We need to be very careful of what comes under ‘etc.’ But here’s my justification.

The Holocaust (and the deaths in the Holodomor, Great Purge, Great Leap Forward, and so on) are a matter of historical record. There are no grounds for disputing these events or the appalling human cost. Anyone doing so has an agenda I find so extreme I don’t think they should be anywhere near a school. There are, of course, other well-documented, appalling events in our history, including a whole load of examples of British brutality. Still, this is a judgement call. There is a big difference between David Irving or Ella Rule actively promoting denial of historical events, and someone who just has a rather rose-tinted perspective on British imperial rule, or a rebellion in pursuit of some oppressed cause.

Evolution by natural selection is not up for debate. The evidence is overwhelming. I have no issue with anyone believing something else but it shouldn’t be promoted in schools. The National Curriculum is unambiguous. And, whilst I think it should be tightened up, the DfE guidance to independent schools is also clear.

The Independent School Standards Guidance for independent schools 2019

Why is this an issue? Because the leveraging of creationism into schools is anti-science. There is nothing in the basic theory of evolution that precludes any kind of mainstream religious views as far as I’m aware. Again, of course, there is nuance. I don’t have a big problem with someone, who privately is a creationist, coming into school to talk about some other aspect of their life, or even their faith. But if they are going round publicly proclaiming evolution is “just a theory” or wrong, they should stay away.

When I referred to vaccine safety, I don’t mean legitimate questions about whether or not to roll out Covid-19 vaccines to children. There is a cost-benefit issue there and therefore a value judgement. If using good data, that’s fine. I mean people like Andrew Wakefield, who is still going round lying about vaccine safety, and people saying Bill Gates is injecting everyone with microchips or the Covid-19 vaccine alters your DNA, or that the data shows it is dangerous for pregnant women. This misinformation is dangerous and has already led to deaths and serious health issues for some. Vaccine hesitancy is understandable and people need support and good information. The last thing they need is a school raising the profile of someone either deliberately or ignorantly spreading misinformation.

Climate change is maybe the most controversial criterion on my list. There are a lot of perfectly decent people, and probably lots of teachers, who aren’t convinced that CO2 from human activity is causing warming that is well outside historic fluctuations. But, like evolution and basic vaccine safety, there is no scientific disagreement about this. It is established. The scientific discussion is about the envelope of potential warming and the effects of that on weather and crops and habitability. On the other hand, what we do about it is an entirely political question. Maybe the more quantifiable costs of change and the things we want now, outweigh the less personally tangible costs coming down the line for future generations. Perhaps there are positive feedback mechanisms that will be apocalyptic, or perhaps scientists and engineers will find a way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a rate that will prevent anything much beyond current impact. We don’t know. These are valid questions. On the science, though, the national curriculum is clear. This is what we are teaching.

KS3 Science 2014 Programme of Study

Again, it’s a question of degree. Someone expressing common doubts about “I don’t know what to think” doesn’t worry me. Someone who is actively working to undermine public understanding of this science, should not be given the additional status, and possible platform, by being invited into schools.

I think, therefore, my criteria are that if something is established using good evidence, beyond the point where there is no real debate in the field beyond the inevitable handful of dissenting voices, and is an agreed part of the curriculum (which has been established by a democratically-elected government, whether you like it or not), then anyone actively promoting alternative ideas should not be in school. Visitors to school have a platform and the implied support of teachers and SLT. They are not just on TikTok along with everyone else.

So, I suppose that does bring me back round to this Peterson thing. I haven’t read any of his books, or watched his YouTube lectures, and I don’t particularly intend to. But a quick Google did throw up this. Maybe it’s somehow “out of context” but I can’t see how this isn’t “climate models are wrong.”

I don’t know whether he makes a concerted effort to undermine the scientific consensus, or just likes to ramble on about things well outside his area of expertise. Either way, this is not only wrong but barely coherent.

I also found this, which is downright unpleasant.

Twitter comment on plus-sized model

And that’s the other thing I think headteachers and governors should be weighing up. Not just, “does providing this person with a platform and raising their profile with children mean those children are more likely to believe powerful untruths?”, but also, “is this person a suitable role model in the way they conduct their life and relationships with others?” What would your view of the tweet above be, if it was someone in school posting about a yearbook photo or something?

It will always come down to how you see someone, though. We inevitably interpret what people say and do in different ways. Look at all those people who couldn’t see that Jeremy Corbyn’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and failures of leadership, opened the door to serious anti-semitism in elements of the Labour Party. So maybe we should think about another obligation schools have.

Schools should be exposing children to a reasonably balanced experience of the breadth of mainstream thinking, in my opinion. The DfE agrees with me. There are people in education, including ITT, who believe teachers should be agents of social justice and aren’t interested in balance. On this, I suspect Old Andrew has a point. It’s complicated because left and right is no longer just about economic policy but I think schools need to be representative and take account of the range of both fiscal and social views. Peterson is not right-wing in traditional political terms, just very socially conservative. I think that type of position should be articulated in schools, too.

So in the end, if anyone was foolish enough to leave me in charge of a school, I wouldn’t invite Peterson in. I think he looks like a poor role model for children and the risk of him spouting off untruths, or children watching his videos and SM then pushing unsavoury, Incel-type stuff their way, is too high. But if you can find someone who holds similar views to Peterson without those problems, they’d be welcome as long as there’s some balance. Balance is important, though. I’ve got a lot of time for Katherine Birbalsingh’s approach to her school and I know her policy is open-door, but are there “look who’s here today! 😍 ” tweets about people with strong socially liberal views?

What about Michael Rosen then? He’s certainly left-wing but I don’t think he denies history or climate science. Most people in the UK would probably disagree with his views on various conflicts but I think the bits I’ve seen fall into the category of legitimate debates, however much anyone dislikes his position. Has he been deeply unpleasant to anyone? I don’t think so. Does he write great children’s books? Yes, he does. What about phonics? Is that like climate change? I think it might be. I’m no expert on early reading but I think there is a strong consensus that systematic phonics is the best approach to early reading. Things like the Rose Report, the National Reading Panel, and the review by Castle, Rastles & Nation (2018) aren’t at IPCC levels of collaboration and consensus but they’re pretty good. SSP is very clearly a required part of the national curriculum, too. What about Rosen’s view. If his blog, from 2013, is current then it looks an awful lot like typical climate change denial: convoluted argument supported by highly selective evidence. Yes, I’d say schools should be thinking twice before all going on a bear hunt, though it pains me to say it.

Best wishes.

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