Student teacher perceptions of controversial issues faced in primary education

Teachers in primary education encounter a range of issues with their learners on a day to day basis, some of which are sensitive or controversial for a number of reasons, for example: questions of appropriateness within curriculum; the strongly held views of parents/carers, children, colleagues or members of the community; and issues of age-appropriateness.

It is now thirty years since the first major texts on teaching controversial issues were published (Carrington and Troyna, 1988; Stradling et al., 1984; Wellington, 1986), and nearly twenty years since the Crick Report (QCA, 1998) set out the case for citizenship education. Crick suggested that children need to address controversial issues in order for them to develop the skills necessary to deal with them knowledgeably, sensibly, tolerantly and morally. In order for such learning to be facilitated effectively, teachers need to be equipped with the necessary strategies, knowledge and confidence. This is a challenging concept within initial teacher education and schools, where time is felt to be tight and PSHE remains non-statutory.

The theoretical framework of this paper considers the significant place of education in the socialisation and enculturation of children, in the light of student teacher perceptions. This requires that student teachers develop critical pedagogies as a means of promoting equity, pupil voice and democratic structures in schools. It explores student concerns about facing sensitive and controversial issues with their pupils and how these have changed since a comparable study in 2008 (Woolley 2010, 2011). All participants were in their final year of study during 2015-16 and based in the education system in England: their training routes and the schools in which they were training came under the same Ofsted inspection / regulatory framework. An online survey sought to elicit student teacher perceptions of a range of issues. The objectives were to:

• establish trainee recall of course content;
• identify trainee perceptions of sensitive/controversial issues;
• establish which issues trainees anticipate encountering in their first teaching post; and
• identify the issues the trainees are most apprehensive about facing, with reasons.

Graded scales were used to elicit responses to the first three elements, and the fourth provided opportunity for open responses accompanied by unlimited free—flow text input.

This paper identifies issues highlighted by the student teachers, with the potential to inform contemporary debates about the content of both courses of teacher training and degrees in Education Studies.