Thursday, 23 June 2016

UPDATE - Are schools using public money to influence the referendum outcome?

I am genuinely confused.

Anyone who has ever worked in the civil service or local government knows without hesitation that during election periods rules come into force that are commonly known as 'purdah', a period when public bodies must go above and beyond the responsibilities of any ordinary person to make sure they are not biased towards one outcome or the other, to make sure they are not seen to be influencing anyone who may be yet to vote.

The rules are quite clear, they are set out in an act of Parliament called the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. A copy of the relevant section is even shown below.






Section 125 says no 'body whose expenses are defrayed wholly or mainly out of public funds' shall publish material which 'provides general information about a referendum, deals with any of the issues raised by (the referendum question), puts any arguments (about the question) or is designed to encourage voting at such a referendum'.

It's one of the areas of law that is really clear, it even goes on to explain what publishing means... 'make available to the public at large, or any section of the public in whatever form and by whatever means'.

Straightforward right? 'Publish' includes leaflets, websites and even social media.

The civil service and local government have long understood that, but there is one area of the public sector who seems to have no idea.

Schools.

Again and again on this referendum day  up and down the country schools seem to have a complete lack of awareness on their responsibilities not to influence.

Here are some examples. They range from the questionable to the very clear...
Can you see prominence for just one side?




The original photo contains a Remain t-shirt but, more importantly has been retweeted by the school

Is one side more eye catching than the other?





Reporting a school referendum result during election day?


It's very clear that schools are not intentionally breaking election law, but nevertheless it appears there is a strong case that they are doing so.

It is also noticeable that, and I need to stress that I am a Remain supporter, that all of these 'breeches' favour one side.

There is a question to be asked as to how much schools, possibly academies with their autonomous status, ever consider wider legislation.

There is a question that as the day goes on how many more schools will inadvertently break election law? Just search twitter using the term 'school referendum' and you will see plenty more examples.

But there is little doubt that whoever loses the referendum tomorrow the opposing side will be searching for reasons and as with other types of elections plenty of questions will be asked about how the establishment skewed the result.

Of course it is absolutely right that schools teach pupils about participation in the democratic process. That also has to include making sure that the legal process is followed too.

UPDATE

As the day has gone on more and more schools have been declaring their mock referendum results. The question remains not just whether an act of parliament, designed to ensure fairness in the public sector, has been infringed but whether the results have materially altered anyone's vote.


In this one staff are also giving their views...




Perhaps the most concerning of the day is this video from Worle School. Is the teacher being balanced? What do you think?




Of course it could be argued that all of this doesn't have an effect on outcomes, but here's just one twitter user using a school's tweet to try and influence.

Maybe one for the electoral commission to decide upon?


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