The Department for Education (DfE) have published guidance for schools reminding them of their obligation to be impartial during election periods. A general election will take place on 12 December 2019 and the DfE’s pre-election guidance says schools should ‘avoid activity that could be construed as partisan or favouring a particular political party.’ It also reminds schools that their ICT facilities should not be used ‘for the distribution of political material, including that produced by third parties, either within the area of the school site or beyond.’
Although the guidance to schools has been refreshed, the law around school’s activity during election periods has not changed. Teachers and school staff are allowed to campaign in a personal capacity as long as they don’t do so on school property or use school resources. During the most recent general election in 2017 some headteachers wrote to parents warning about the impact of cuts to funding. This proved controversial with some politicians claiming that some schools had gone beyond what was permissible.
However the guidance stresses that the restrictions placed on schools don’t extend to preventing them ‘using the pre-election period to raise pupils’ awareness and understanding of the political process’. Activities to raise awareness could include hosting hustings events, visits from local candidates or mock elections. Schools are urged to ensure pupils are ‘offered a balanced presentation of opposing views’ as well as ‘providing scope for all registered political parties to engage where children wish’.
The full guidance can be found at: https://tinyurl.com/yyps6k5w
Meanwhile the education secretary has announced funding to try to avoid schools having to close on election day. Greensheets reported last week that many schools were gearing up for disruption as they would be used as the venue for a polling station. Some schools have already closed twice in 2019 for local and European elections. In a letter to councils Gavin Williamson noted that ‘schools across the country will be planning festive events’ which would be ‘important highlights in the school calendar’. He said central government would reimburse ‘necessary costs’ to support councils in finding alternative venues to try to keep disruption to schools to an ‘absolute minimum’. Mr Williamson concludes the letter by stating ‘In every community there will be alternatives and I would ask that, wherever possible, these are used instead’.
However, this last claim drew an angry response from the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA). Their chief executive, Peter Stanyon, wrote back to the education secretary to say that this ‘is simply not the case’, arguing that ‘especially in rural areas, there are simply no alternatives to the venues designated as polling places’. In the letter he also expresses the AEA’s ‘extreme disappointment’ in Mr Williamson’s intervention, saying it had been ‘unhelpful’. He particularly criticised the timing: ‘We question why this letter was sent out so late, after most polling stations have already been booked. Our members have been working tirelessly to negotiate access to all venues designated as polling places, which is both time consuming and difficult.’Greensheets will have further general election news, including details of the main parties’ education proposals, throughout the campaign.
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