Lessons Panned

The debate over whether our teenagers should be allowed to vote in next year’s independence referendum was one which drew heavy criticism. The unionist parties cried foul, Alex Salmond and his colleagues in the SNP were accused of attempting to rig the vote with youngsters who would fall into the trap of being seduced by flag waving and patriotism.

But a new, and questionably weighted, poll released over the weekend shows an apparent gold mine of support for the union. Our friends at Better Together HQ rejoiced – what a wonderful decision to allow 16 and 17 year olds a say. However the poll did not bring contentment as today we learned that every school in the nation would receive “lesson packs” from the No campaign, instructing teachers how to teach their pupils about next year’s ballot. Twitter was ablaze with shock and concern over the politicisation of the classroom.

The heavy handed nature of Better Together’s embrace of Scotland’s youth led one concerned teacher to contact National Collective with their worries. Wishing to remain anonymous, the teacher, like many other partial and impartial contributors, views National Collective as a safe platform from which to air their views.

This is what the teacher said:

What concerns me most is the attempt to describe this as a ‘useful tool’ for teachers. This is for two reasons. First, Better Together Youth Ambassador Ross Macrae has said that they will be trying to make the materials “as non-partisan as possible.” It is not the job of teachers to be as non-partisan as possible. It is their task to be non-partisan. Secondly, it is a fairly damning indictment of the teaching profession if Better Together really believe that teachers need proscribed materials so that they know ‘what referendums are,’ which Macrae has said is the ‘first lesson’ in the pack. It also shows a fairly woeful lack of knowledge of what Scottish pupils are already being taught, daily, in their social studies classes.

I agree that there are a lot of teachers who don’t know the ins and outs of the arguments on either side, and there have already been council-wide directives telling teachers that they must remain balanced when addressing it. Young people are interested in it – very much so, and it would be naïve to think that it is only Modern Studies teachers (who are generally far more aware of the need to be balanced when addressing political issues) who will be asked questions about this by their pupils. However, I find it utterly ridiculous that Better Together think the answer to the perennial problem of teaching political and social education (trying to be as neutral as possible) could possibly be made easier by teaching lesson plans designed by a political campaign, whether that is Better Together, Yes Scotland, or any other campaign. Schools across Scotland have to be careful with these materials, and I very much hope that head teachers will refuse to accept them. If not, they are allowing teachers to be biased in their teaching, should these materials be used. I am certainly not the only teacher who is concerned that, in the run-up to the referendum, putting across a positive case for independence, even if doing so while also putting across the positive case for staying part of the UK, will be frowned upon far more than asserting a preference for the status-quo. Even contemplating designing these materials only fuels that concern.

This is a sinister, cynical, and ultimately rather stupid move on behalf of Better Together. No teacher worth their salt – regardless of their own voting intention – would use these materials in any way other than to help pupils recognise bias, selectivity and exaggeration – as I , and all other teachers tasked with teaching Scottish politics, have been doing all year, with both Yes Scotland and Better Together campaign videos, leaflets and debates. I can assure you that the majority of the pupils I have taught would, like their teacher, view any such materials as ‘useful tools’ only in terms of understanding the methods used by political campaigns in order to achieve their aims. And, like their teacher, I am sure the majority would be rather concerned by this particular method.”

‘Youth and Students for Independence’ added the following comments:

We’re very concerned by the No campaign’s announcement of their lesson plans for teachers. The role of both campaigns should be to provide materials for scrutiny and comparison, not dictating how they are presented.

The Yes campaign will be producing materials for schools to use in lessons, debates etc. but we will not be telling teachers how to use them. The role of the teacher is to present both arguments in a balanced way and we are confident that in that situation most young people will see the sense of a Yes vote. The No campaign clearly doesn’t have the same confidence in a fair fight!”