Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

An inconvenient judgement

Al Gore

The recent court case involving Al Gore's Oscar-winning film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, ruled that schools can show the movie alongside proper guidance. However it was a reminder to tread carefully where politics are concerned.

The film had been sent to every secondary school by the former DfES and DEFRA with the suggestion that it might be used in science, geography and citizenship lessons. Guidance on its use was available on Teachernet.

A school governor - who also happened to be a member of a political group The New Party - objected, claiming that it was unlawful under the 1996 Education Act which states that schools "shall forbid the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school" and that " ...where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views".

The court accepted that the film was political since it had implications for fiscal, investment, energy and foreign policy.

The question then was whether it was partisan. For a mainstream scientific opinion, the judge used the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Where the Gore film departed from that with no evidence (eg by alleging that some Pacific island countries had been abandoned) he concluded it was partisan.

He stated that although science and geography teachers may have the specialist knowledge to identify aspects that were not mainstream and therefore present a balanced view, he could not be sure that the same applied to citizenship teachers.

He did not think that providing guidance on the web met the requirement to give teachers balanced materials. Guidance should be sent out with the film. Schools would be acting unlawfully if they simply showed the film to students. However, if guidance was sent out and teachers used it, there is no breach of the law.

The judge emphasised that balance does not mean equal time. He used as his example a theory that the moon was made of green cheese. It would be lawful to give more time to theories that stated it was not, and to conclude that that theory was ridiculous. By extension, it is not necessary to give equal time or equal respect to beliefs in creationism as against evolution or that the world is around 4004 years old as opposed to millions of years old. However, there are some warnings in this judgement. For example, 'Oh What a Lovely War' was created by Joan Littlewood, who was a Communist.

The film of the play was created by an avowed pacifist and admirer of Gandhi. Neither the play nor the book coincides with the mainstream academic historical judgement on the causes or the conduct of the First World War. Does the school's drama department use them in a partisan way as defined by the judge?

It may take a few more cases to give us clarity on these matters but it might be worth giving staff a reminder that politics and 'partisan' have a wide meaning.

By Richard Bird

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