Are vaccines safe?

Today, the National Education Union formally endorses Are Vaccines Safe? and will promote the tools to its membership. As the largest education union in Europe, this is a major next step. 

The Runnymede Trust, a leading independent think tank on issues of race equality, is also supporting the materials.

  • The Stephen Hawking Foundation has launched free critical-thinking learning tools for schools to support discussion around the topic of vaccinations.
  • This school assembly and lesson plan has been developed in collaboration with schools, leading research institutions and community representatives.
  • As a critical thinking teaching aid, the tools focus on the COVID vaccine and tackle head on conspiracy theories that have led to limited uptake in some communities.
  • Today, the National Education Union adds its support to these vital materials. The NEU will be promoting them directly to its 450,000 members. Think-tank the Runnymede Trust is also supporting the teaching aid.

Available here as a PowerPoint, and over the course of 46 slides, Are Vaccines Safe? provides teachers and school leaders with accurate, up-to-date scientific information on a range of frequently asked questions about the vaccination programme. It has been structured to allow school age students to engage fully in a conversation about any uncertainties or concerns they may have. Staff who lead the assembly or class are provided with additional notes and references.

The Stephen Hawking Foundation is named after one of the most respected thinkers in modern science, who died in 2018. The Foundation has worked with staff at Morpeth School, London, who initially devised these materials for assemblies and classrooms, as a continuation of Hawking’s belief in critical thinking and public engagement with science.

The tools have now been further developed with Queen Mary University of London and the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) with the help of school-age students, teachers, scientists, science communicators and community representatives. The resources will continue to be subject to regular revision over the coming months, in order to keep pace with the science, the news agenda and the public conversation.

Are Vaccines Safe? was the brainchild of Ed Stubbs, a secondary school teacher at Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets, East London. He told us: “As a teacher previously working in inner-city Liverpool, and now in London, I have noticed students becoming increasingly fearful of vaccination. Some of my students and their families refuse their school vaccinations. I hear incorrect, and 'conspiracy' information shared in my classroom. I fear that students' real and fictional concerns increase UK vaccine hesitancy. The charged and often accusatory debate about vaccination choices can make young people feel hesitant about voicing their concerns and seeking help in debunking false information. They fear critical judgement over their doubts. I decided to create a set of unbiased resources for use in schools.”

The learning materials (PowerPoint file, Teacher's notes and PDF) can be downloaded free from the Stephen Hawking Foundation website. The public-facing link is www.stephenhawkingfoundation.org/vaccines

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“As a former science teacher myself, I know that school is absolutely the right place for this conversation to be held. Young people have many questions about COVID and the vaccine, and this is not surprising when they themselves have been so frequently at the centre of its news coverage. These brilliant tools are accessible and robust, tackling many of the myths which can build so easily online and within communities. We are sure that our members will find them a fantastic resource.”

Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, said:

“Young people are faced with conflicting information about vaccines at a time when we are all trying to cope with and manage a public health crisis like never before. Enabling young people to ask questions about vaccines and their efficacy, as well as build good public health and science understanding, will help with building their confidence in taking the vaccine and making an informed decision, supported by teachers.

"This will have a particularly positive effect on young people from BME groups who are often in households where their grandparents and parents rely on good advice from their children, as a result of various cultural barriers in accessing community health support.”

Lucy Hawking, chair of the Stephen Hawking Foundation's Trustees, said:

"We are delighted to have the endorsement of two organisations with such strong dedication to schools and their communities. Working on these tools has been one of the most timely and impactful projects the Stephen Hawking Foundation has ever run. This is essential educational outreach at a critical time, and we greatly appreciate the efforts of everyone involved throughout its development.

"Initial feedback shows a warm reception by educators in the UK and as we hoped, is a useful and productive resource for schools to give students a chance to explore issues around vaccination through asking questions and providing accurate, scientific answers. We hope more schools, families and students will have the chance to access this resource.” 

Professor Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, said: 

"I feel teachers are ideally placed to combat the UK’s falling vaccination rates. This programme has been carefully calibrated to include the insights of some of the leading scientists in this field but to make the information accessible to people of all ages and communities.”

The tools have also been developed with and supported by science communicator Dr Emily Grossman, who said:

“In a world full of fake news and dangerous misinformation, it’s so important that the young people of today can find out the truth about the COVID vaccine.

"This set of resources is so valuable, not only because it communicates simply and effectively the science behind how vaccines work, how effective they are and how safe they are; but also because it allows young people to ask questions and it allays concerns they might have from reading confusing, conflicting and at times frightening reports on the internet. The more widely this resource pack is distributed, the better informed this generation will be. Not only will that allow them to make better decisions based on solid science, it will also give them the tools they need in order to analyse information more critically in the future.”

Notes to editors

Professor Hawking set up the Stephen Hawking Foundation in 2015 to further public engagement with science. Professor Stephen Hawking was arguably one of the most pre-eminent scientists of the last hundred years. His life was affected by Motor Neurone Disease and he wanted to help ensure that people do not forget the role played by vaccinations in eradicating disease.

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) is a world-leading centre for research, postgraduate studies and continuing education in public and global health. LSHTM has a strong international presence with over 3,000 staff and 4,000 students working in the UK and countries around the world, and an annual research income of £180 million. LSHTM is one of the highest-rated research institutions in the UK, is partnered with two MRC University Units in The Gambia and Uganda, and was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2016. Our mission is to improve health and health equity in the UK and worldwide; working in partnership to achieve excellence in public and global health research, education and translation of knowledge into policy and practice.

The National Education Union stands up for the future of education. It brings together the voices of more than 450,000 teachers, lecturers, support staff and leaders working in maintained and independent schools and colleges across the UK, to form the largest education union in Europe. It is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing its members in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The National Education Union is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). It is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.

Runnymede Trust is the UK's leading independent race equality think tank. We generate intelligence to challenge race inequality in Britain through research, network building, leading debate, and policy engagement. Runnymede Trust is working to build a Britain in which all citizens and communities feel valued, enjoy equal opportunities, lead fulfilling lives, and share a common sense of belonging. In order to effectively overcome racial inequality in our society, we believe that our democratic dialogue, policy, and practice, should all be based on reliable evidence from rigorous research and thorough analysis. Runnymede Trust is a registered charity.

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