"Myth of the neutral school" - Clare Jarmy in TES

Posted on 30th August 2017

In a recent article in the TES described by its Content Editor Ed Dorrell as a "fine example of teacher writing because it makes me think", Clare Jarmy asks whether neutrality in schools’ education of young people is truly possible – or even desirable and concludes that it is not.

The wish to remain neutral as a school is common, and it is easy to see why. In classrooms, the child of the Ukip voter sits next to the child of the Liberal Democrat voter, the Hindu sits next to the atheist. With different perspectives being brought into the classroom, teachers can rightly feel uncomfortable about being anything other than completely objective. Why should any student be made to feel their perspective is not valued?

Given this reality, Clare considers the possibility of a schooling in facts without the education of values. Philosopher David Hume argued that we can’t get “an ought from an is”, whilst philosophers such as AJ Ayer asserted that if a statement can’t be proved or disproved, mathematically or scientifically, it was literally nonsense.

Such a distinction between fact and value, she argues, is embedded in how schools think of best practice – educators consider that their job is to teach content, not to shape students’ personal values. Nowadays, this lack of bias is enshrined in government policy. The Prevent strategy requires all schools, by law, to teach “a broad and balanced curriculum”. It safeguards against “biased or unbalanced teaching”, stipulating that, wherever practical, potentially political or controversial issues should be taught from both sides.

Clare comments: “I’m sceptical about this approach. Moreover, I doubt that neutrality is possible, much less desirable. In schools, values are everywhere. We set expectations for students based on what the institution values.”

Values can also subtly affect the curriculum – not least what Jarmy calls the ‘absent curriculum’, by which she means what is excluded.  For example, at one point understanding British history was deemed the most important thing for students. Now, in a more globalised world, people are rightly questioning such a Eurocentric approach. Such choices are made based on what is valued, and she sees it as a problem when students are given no inkling that there is anything missing from the curriculum. She says: “That’s one of my issues with Prevent. The instruction for a lack of bias and need for balance does not come from a neutral place at all. The whole strategy is avowedly based on ‘British values’, such as democracy, the rule of law, tolerance and individual liberty. The very document that requires balance and unbiased teaching is itself holding certain values to be self-evident.”

She concludes: “Let’s not strive for neutrality – it’s impossible. Let’s instead recognise that there are values everywhere in what we do at school and let’s be clear about them.”

The full article is available on the TES website here (subscription may be needed).

For more about Clare Jarmy and links to her other articles, click here