There are some items in the school curriculum that teachers find difficult to teach because of their potential controversial nature. Teachers themselves may feel uncomfortable with teaching a particular topic or they may be aware of options held by members of their local community or the wider public which may be an area of sensitivity.
The NSW Department of Education has a Controversial Issues Policy and a Procedure document to manage such concerns along with related policies on Religious Education, Values in Education, Special Education in Ethics, a Code of Conduct for Teachers, Incident Reporting, and the use of Audiovisual material in schools. The Controversial Issues Policy is something, among all the other DET policies, that some teachers may be unaware of.
As a Christian teacher working in a public school, being aware of this policy might make it a little clearer how to teach and act within the framework of your employment. For teachers in Christian schools, some of the DET policy approaches may also be useful in designing your own policies to handle controversial issues that arise through teaching the curriculum.
A summary of the DET Controversial Issues In Schools Policy and Procedures
Teachers are advised to read the whole policy and procedures documents and not to rely only on the edited summary of the main points below.
Controversial Issues in Schools Policy
The general context
Schools provide curriculum-based learning and teaching programs, activities and events to achieve a wide range of learning outcomes that include values, attitudes and ethics. Schools are required to acknowledge the diverse views held by parents and the community about what is suitable for study at school.
Students and teachers face changing and complex societal situations. Particular topics covered in learning and teaching programs may be impacted on by events outside the school and become controversial in nature. Controversial issues are not static and are impacted by changing attitudes, world events and social values.
“The study of controversial issues is acceptable for educational purposes consistent with the delivery of curriculum and provision of school programs and activities.
Controversial issues are managed in accordance with the following principles:
- Schools are neutral places for rational discourse and objective study.
- Discussion of controversial issues in schools should allow students to explore a range of viewpoints and not advance the interest of any particular group.
- Material presented to students as part of school programs and school activities should be:
- age appropriate
- sensitive to student needs
- relevant to the curriculum
- relevant to the school’s purpose and goals
- consistent with the core values outlined in Values in NSW public schools policy.
Where outlined in the procedures, parents and carers should be informed about the participation of their children in delivery of curriculum, events, excursions, school programs or activities addressing controversial issues.
Attempting to recruit students or staff into non-school approved groups for religious or ideological reasons is not permitted in schools.
The Teacher’s Role
Maintain objectivity, avoiding distortion of discussion and acknowledge the rights of students, parents and carers to hold different viewpoints.
inform the principal of any upcoming activities, curriculum content, school programs, presentations, events or visitors addressing controversial issues.
What are controversial issues?
“Controversial issues may be questions, subjects, topics or problems which create a difference of opinion, causing contention and debate within the school or the community.
Schools are not places to proselytise, that is, to convert students who are not already members of a particular belief system to become members of that belief system.
Schools should not be used to advance political platforms or for recruiting into partisan groups organised upon restricted party lines.”
A teacher’s personal view should not impact on teaching a subject. Sharing their knowledge or view may be necessary to assist students to form their own views or to answer a query from students relevant to the discussion. In such situations the information given should be balanced and presented as one opinion to be considered critically along with any others. Teachers are required to ensure that all views and evidence are presented impartially in all discussions of controversial issues.
Visitors and external providers
Supervise presentations and activities conducted by visitors and external providers, ensuring that objectivity is maintained and the rights of students to express differing viewpoints are respected. Where possible, view presentations and materials used by visitors and external providers prior to the event.
Religious Education and Ethics providers conducting activities outside the specific activities listed in the Religious Education policy and Special Education in Ethics policy are subject to the provisions of this policy and procedures.
All materials to be referenced or distributed to students that include controversial issues are to be reviewed and approved by the principal in advance. Approval for excursions and the participation or engagement of visitors or external providers to the school is subject to the review of the materials to be used.
Media material to be used in school, school programs and activities or on excursions are to be previewed by teachers or the principal prior to the event.
Parents and carers need to be advised of the specific details of school activities, programs or events addressing controversial issues and the relevance to the curriculum and school programs and activities.