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Schools ‘not there to be a political space’, says Gavin Williamson

The Education Secretary told MPs that schools must remain impartial.

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Pupils working in class

Schools must be impartial and there is “no space” for them to be showing or pushing political views, the Education Secretary has said.

Gavin Williamson was asked about the use of the term “white privilege” and whether the Department for Education (DfE) could intervene and tell a school it was not an appropriate term to be promoted or, if it was, that it should be done in an impartial way.

Appearing before the Commons Education Select Committee, he said schools are “not there to be a political space”.

He told MPs: “While we should always have a tolerance and understanding of different, you know, arguments and viewpoints and a good understanding of a situation, schools are there to create the space for children to learn.

“They are not there to be a political space.”

Asked specifically about use of the term “white privilege”, Mr Williamson said: “Schools are there and they have to be politically impartial.

“There is no space for, you know, schools to be showing sort of political views or trying to sort of push that in any form or way whatsoever and that’s something that needs to be always remembered.”

His comments come after the committee produced a report on Monday claiming terminology such as “white privilege” may have contributed towards a “systemic neglect” of white working-class pupils.

The Conservative-dominated committee said white working-class pupils have been “let down” for decades by England’s education system – and “divisive” language can make the situation worse.

The report concluded that disadvantaged white pupils have been badly let down by “muddled” policy thinking and the DfE has failed to acknowledge the extent of the problem.

The Government has come in for criticism for its policies to support families on lower incomes throughout the coronavirus pandemic and Tory MPs have been accused of stoking a “culture war” with the report.

Critics say it is the Conservative Government – rather than terms such as “white privilege” – which have failed poorer children.

Media minister John Whittingdale was forced to defend the Government’s record on free school meals and the removal of the £20 increase to Universal Credit.

Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Wednesday about the select committee report, Mr Whittingdale said he cares “about all children”.

But he was questioned over why, if he cares about white-working class pupils, he had voted “against free school meals” during the pandemic.

He said: “I voted with the Government in favour of what the Government was doing to support children.”

Campaigning by England footballer Marcus Rashford last year led to a U-turn by the Government, meaning eligible children continued to receive free school meals during the holidays.

Mr Whittingdale said the premise of the question was “a complete distortion of the vote that took place”, adding: “The Government had a programme whereby we were supporting children in the course of holidays etc during the pandemic; we had our own way – which we felt was a better way – of helping those children and that is what we put forward and continue to do.”

Marcus Rashford and Tom Kerridge cooking tutorials
Campaigning by England footballer Marcus Rashford last year meant eligible children continued to receive free school meals during the holidays (Martin Rickett/PA)

Asked whether the Government will therefore keep the £20 increase to Universal Credit, which is due to end in October, he said: “We will continue to support families in need; the way in which we do so is a matter which obviously… the Treasury and my colleagues in the DWP continue to keep under review.”

Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, Southfields and Roehampton and an education committee member, previously said: “I’m concerned this report will be used to fight a divisive culture war instead of address chronic under-funding of early years, family hubs, careers advice and mentoring, and youth services.”

Asked whether MPs are trying to create a culture war, committee chairman and Conservative MP Robert Halfon said earlier this week that members are addressing decades of neglect of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The report called for a network of family hubs to be introduced to boost parental engagement and mitigate the effects of multi-generational disadvantage.

It added that funding needs to be tailor-made at a local level, initiatives should focus on attracting good teachers to challenging areas, and vocational and apprenticeship opportunities should be promoted.

A DfE spokesman said: “This Government is focused on levelling up opportunity so that no young person is left behind.

“That’s why we are providing the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade – £14 billion over three years – investing in early years education and targeting our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3 billion to date, to support disadvantaged pupils aged two to 19 with their attainment.”

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