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Schools: Freedom of Expression

Question for Department for Education

UIN 86067, tabled on 2 December 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps his Department is taking to promote free speech in schools.

Answered on

8 December 2021

Schools play an important role in preparing pupils for life in modern Britain. There are opportunities in the school curriculum and other school duties for pupils to learn about their rights as citizen of the United Kingdom, including about free speech.

The programmes of study for citizenship cover topics that help to prepare pupils to play a full and active part in society and teach them how to explore political and social issues critically, to weigh evidence, to debate, and to make reasoned arguments. Further information on the programmes of study can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-citizenship-programmes-of-study.

Pupils should be taught about the liberties enjoyed by the citizens of the United Kingdom and use and apply their knowledge and understanding while developing skills to research and interrogate evidence, debate and evaluate viewpoints, present reasoned arguments, and take informed action.

Since September 2020, relationships education has been compulsory for all primary school-aged pupils, relationships and sex education compulsory for all secondary school-aged pupils, and health education compulsory for all pupils in primaries and secondaries.

The statutory guidance sets out that pupils should know their rights, responsibilities and opportunities online and the Teacher Training Modules set out that teachers should explain that this includes the right to freedom of expression. Further information on the statutory guidance can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/relationships-education-relationships-and-sex-education-rse-and-health-education, and further guidance on the teacher training modules can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/teaching-about-relationships-sex-and-health.

The department has produced a relationships, sex and health education ‘Teacher training: respectful relationships’ module that includes advice on how to explain the harm caused by ‘cancel culture’ and the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of association to a tolerant and free society. It also includes teaching that censorship and ‘no platforming’ are harmful and damaging, and that seeking to get people ‘cancelled’ simply because you disagree with them, is a form of bullying and is not acceptable. Further information on this can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teacher-training-respectful-relationships.

Schools are required to actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs. Freedom of speech is relevant to, and could be considered, in the context of all these values. Ultimately, school leaders are best placed to make their own decisions about what they teach in this respect and how they teach it, subject to their obligations to ensure political balance.

The department is developing guidance for schools on political impartiality, to help schools to understand their responsibilities in this area, including the importance of exposing pupils to a diverse range of views during their time at school. The department expects to publish this guidance early next year.

With regards to flying the Union Flag, schools are free to display the national flag and it is a matter for individual schools to decide. The department does not provide specific guidance or restrictions on this.