TEACHERS have been banned from sharing political views with their pupils in the run-up to next year’s independence referendum.
One of the country’s largest education authorities, Edinburgh city council, has told staff they must “facilitate fair and balanced discussions”, but not express their own opinions.
The move came as the pro-Union Better Together campaign said it would be sending a teacher-resource pack,
including lesson plans, research materials and a mock debate kit, to every school in the country.
National guidance detailing how teachers should approach the subject of the referendum during lessons is expected to be published by Education Scotland later this summer.
The moves come after it was agreed that, for the first time, 16- and 17-year-olds would be eligible to vote in next year’s referendum under a deal brokered
between the SNP government and the UK coalition.
In a note from the council, headteachers were told to remind staff that “care should be taken” to avoid saying anything which could be construed as backing one side or another in the referendum debate.
“In line with best practice, evidenced by teachers of modern studies,” the note reads, “teachers should ensure that if they are involved in discussions with pupils regarding independence in Scotland, that their role is to facilitate fair and balanced discussions allowing for different views to be expressed and they should avoid sharing their own political views.”
While the guidance relates to lessons, teachers have also been warned to avoid having conversations about the referendum with colleagues if they are likely to be overheard by students.
News of the guidance emerged after the publication of a poll showing only one in five young people intends to vote Yes in next year’s referendum.
A survey of more than 1,000 teenagers aged between 14 and 17 by Edinburgh University academics for the Economic and Social Research Council found 60 per cent intend to vote to stay in the UK, with 21 per cent favouring independence and 18.8 per cent undecided.
While Better Together said it would begin sending teaching packs to schools in the coming weeks, the pro-independence group Yes Scotland said it had plans only for “schools packs”, which would be distributed by young supporters.
But Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union, said the guidance from the council was “heavy handed”.
“The less the politicians interfere the better,” he said. “Most teachers are experienced enough in political issues to be able to speak to pupils without creating bias.
“Kids are interested in what you think as a teacher, but that’s where professional judgment comes in. If Edinburgh’s purpose is not to have teachers delivering propaganda, then this guidance is totally unnecessary and will only undermine the relationship teachers have with pupils. Schools run hustings-type events around elections all the time – it’s not as if they are coming to this completely inexperienced. It’s heavy handed by Edinburgh.”
Education Scotland – the government agency tasked with improving the quality of the country’s education system – is currently working on guidance for schools on the referendum. However, it is unlikely to go as far as instructing teachers to keep their views to themselves.
A spokesman said: “Education Scotland is working closely with the Electoral Commission and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland on producing advice for education authorities and headteachers on issues relating to the forthcoming referendum in Scotland. This will be issued this summer.”
A survey of the country’s larger councils by The Scotsman yesterday found none had yet issued advice similar to
Edinburgh, although Highland Council was considering it.
But Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said Edinburgh city council’s guidance was “superfluous”.
He said: “Teachers have been unbiased for years in the classroom, so why should the independence referendum be any different? It also fails to give due respect to 16- and 17-year-olds, many of whom will be able to make as good, if not better, judgments (about the referendum) than many 40-year-olds.
“The whole matter has been hyped up unnecessarily.”
Grant Costello, chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, said: “We believe young people are smart enough to listen to their teachers but come to their own judgment on how to vote in September next year.”
Ross MacRae, Better Together’s youth co-ordinator, said his group’s teaching packs would be as “non-partisan as possible”.
“It’s less about our message. The first lesson is about referendums. We’re just giving them the resources. They do reflect our message, but it’s up to the teachers how to use it. We’re confident in the teaching profession. We don’t think they’re biased in any shape or form.”
Shirley-Anne Somerville, director of communities for Yes Scotland, said: “Yes Scotland believes that Scottish teachers know how to plan their lessons, without any help from the No campaign. They are crossing a line here by trying to get teachers to teach to a prescribed text.
“Yes Scotland will also provide a schools pack of information to young people throughout the country, but this will be done through our young supporters in each school, because we believe that is the most effective way of engaging.”
A spokesman for Edinburgh city council said: “General advice has been issued to schools about discussing political subjects in the light of the independence referendum next year. We are awaiting specific national guidance from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and Education Scotland regarding the issue of the independence referendum in schools.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman added: “Pupils already learn about elections and the importance of democratic systems as part of their education. It will be for the Electoral Commission to consider how young people who will be eligible to vote in the referendum can best be provided with the factual information they need.”