Sunday, April 12, 2015

UK: Islam vs liberalism: the classroom’s silent Culture War

Teachers are afraid of tackling difficult questions in front of pupils

Last weekend’s National Union of Teachers conference confirmed that schooling, subject to conflicting ideological and cultural pressures, has lost any sense of common purpose. It has also lost a sense of what it is to socialise children. Indeed, if the motions debated at the NUT conference reflect wider trends in teaching, it seems socialisation has turned into a caricature of itself.

Take two of the motions debated and passed at the NUT conference. The first asserted that government should be ‘forced’ to portray gay relationships in a positive light. It called on teachers to put pressure on the government ‘to make it compulsory that all schools’ sex-education policies include a positive portrayal of same-sex relationships’. The second motion asserted that teachers should be able to avoid class discussions of Islamic extremism. The justification for this, as NUT general secretary Christine Blower put it, is that ‘some of our members are frightened to discuss things in class because they are worried that if there’s any discussion that they will have to report this to the police’.

Whatever one thinks of these two motions, it is clear that they contradict one another. It is difficult to imagine how in the twenty-first century one can have a sensible discussion on gay relationships without engaging with the hostility directed against them by radical Islamic dogma. Imagine talking to a group of religious pupils about gay relationships while avoiding talking about the illiberal sentiments that influence their lives. In such circumstances, discussions of gay relationships will be at best an exercise in box-ticking.

The logical outcome of the NUT’s contradictory resolutions is that, in practice, it will confine the promotion of positive gay relationships to classrooms composed of secular-minded pupils. In schools influenced by radical religious sentiments, awkward questions on liberal values will be avoided.

Promoting dishonesty

The NUT’s contradictory motions are not just examples of confusion and self-deception; they are also evidence of moral cowardice. The NUT tries to justify the refusal to discuss Islamic extremism on the grounds that the recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act forces teachers to report pupils suspected of radicalisation to the police. The NUT leadership asserts that this law ‘closes down spaces for such discussions’ and that ‘many school staff are now unwilling to allow discussions in their classroom for fear of the consequences’.

However, the reality is that a significant group of educators have avoided classroom discussions of issues that touch upon radical Islam for a very long time. Even before the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was introduced, few teachers discussed with their pupils the antagonism between jihadist radicalism and liberal values. Numerous teachers said they found such discussions hard to handle and, when they attempted to raise difficult questions, they found they received little support from their superiors. The reluctance to report pupils to the police was never the real problem here; it was the unwillingness to tackle difficult and controversial issues. That is why some educators have avoided addressing radical Islamic influences in the classroom.

Since the turn of the century, many British schools have shied away from tackling thorny questions with Muslim pupils. A report published in the aftermath of the race-related disturbances in Bradford in 2001 found that ‘some teachers in Bradford consider the Holocaust to be a difficult subject to approach with Muslim pupils’.

A review published by the Historical Association, Teaching Emotive and Controversial History, reported that a ‘history department in a northern city avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils’. It also mentioned another history department in which ‘the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils’. However, the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 because teachers’ ‘balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques’.

In recent years the situation has become worse. One teacher from a school in east London reported to me that her managers had actively discouraged her from discussing the Charlie Hebdo massacre with her Muslim students. Another teacher reported that such discussions were avoided in order to prevent an Islamophobic backlash.

These reactions show that, too often, schools are reluctant to challenge the cultural and ideological attitudes of Muslim pupils. Like the NUT leadership, they are very bold in promoting fashionable causes among secular pupils, but avoid having difficult conversations in circumstances that might provoke a hostile response.

Cultural segmentation

There are many problems with the government’s Prevent agenda and its project of promoting British values in schools and elsewhere. Cultural values that have real meaning for people’s lives are organic to their daily experience. They are not so much taught as practised and lived. Values that are promoted artificially or administratively through campaigns of public education are often unable to win hearts and minds. This ghettoisation of values in education highlights their absence in the rest of the curriculum.

It is only through a curriculum of genuine liberal education that pupils can be socialised into the values of tolerance, liberty and democracy. Schools that take seriously the challenge of transmitting the ideals of the Enlightenment through the teaching of history, science or literature do not need to pontificate about British values. Students can be inspired through an open-minded liberal curriculum.

The flawed nature of the government’s British values project is more than matched by the NUT’s reaction to it. If the NUT leadership possessed a little courage, it could refuse to implement the government’s Prevent strategy. It could call on teachers to discuss Islamic radicalism, but not disclose the content of those discussions to any external agency. But instead of deciding to exercise its professional judgment, the NUT elects to avoid the problem altogether. The logical outcome of this behaviour is to perpetuate and reinforce the cultural divisions that prevail in British society.

One final point: despite the mutually contradictory character of the two NUT motions discussed, they possess one feature in common – an almost visceral aversion to discussion and debate. The motion on gay relationships insists that schools be forced to promote a ‘positive portrayal’ of same-sex relationships. From this standpoint, there is nothing to debate. Like a church dogma, it is beyond discussion. In the case of Islamic extremism, discussion and debate is also to be avoided. The NUT clearly does not believe that educating children about the value of free discussion is part of its remit.

The illiberal intolerance communicated through these motions is unworthy of a profession that has done so much to enlighten generations of young people. Those teachers who believe that schooling involves educating young people for freedom and its exercise will no doubt ignore both of these motions.


Schooling goes back to the future

Teaching subject knowledge will give young people the means to shape their own destiny.

Knowledge and the Future School, explain the co-authors, is written ‘primarily for those thousands of teachers… who have dark moments’. It is about addressing some of the deep questions about teaching, which are often deeply hidden by policymakers in their frenetic attempts to create more and better education policies.

What is teaching for? Is it about the transmission of knowledge to the next generation, or about churning out kids with the requisite qualifications and skills? Is it about retaining the knowledge of the past, or preparing young people to be able to navigate an unknown future? Is it about developing the brightest and best minds, or challenging the wider problem of social inequality through what is taught and learned?

In grappling with these questions, the authors manage to avoid the boring old binary distinctions that tend to characterise debates about education and the purpose of teaching: and in doing so, promote a practical vision for the ‘future school’ that places the curriculum at its heart.

As a collaboration between Young, David Lambert, both professors at London University’s Institute of Education, Carolyn Roberts, a school head teacher, and Martin Roberts, a former head teacher and now consultant to The Prince’s Teaching Institute, the book is also a genuine collaboration between those who study education in universities and those engaged with teaching in schools. It takes the insights of Young’s brilliant but densely-argued 2008 book Bringing Knowledge Back In, and applies them to the teaching and schools of today.

The authors envision three futures for the school curriculum. In future one, ‘knowledge is treated as largely given, and established by tradition and the route it offers high achievers to our leading universities’; it tends to be ‘associated with one-way transmission pedagogy and a view of pupils that expects compliance from pupils’. This was the approach that went badly out of fashion from the 1960s onwards, condemned for being rigid and elitist.

The central criticism of the future-one curriculum was that it treated knowledge as static, and saw ‘the future… as an extension of the past’. Back in the 1960s, many intellectuals – Michael Young among them – sought to challenge this fossilised view of knowledge by stressing the extent to which knowledge is not simply handed down, but actively and socially constructed.

And these intellectuals were right – to a point. Berger and Luckmann’s brilliant little book, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), theorises the interaction between the objective world and the subjective meaning for those within it. Other contributions to the sociology of knowledge have emphasised that what we know is informed by the time and place in which we are living, the past that we draw on, and the way we are anticipating the future.

But just because knowledge is socially constructed does not make it arbitrary: and that was the problem with the critique of the future-one curriculum. Young famously, and bravely, underwent a volte face on the constructivist approach to knowledge when he became aware that many critics of the ‘old’ curriculum were demanding, not a more subtle, expansive, and dynamic approach to curriculum content, but the kind of curriculum that tried to avoid knowledge completely.

In this, the second future curriculum, boundaries between subjects disappeared, and much academic education became vocationalised. The idea that knowledge was ‘“constructed” in response to particular needs and interests’ replaced the subtle appreciation of the ways in which reality is socially constructed; knowledge became seen as the crude imposition of particular interests upon unwitting school students.

Criticisms of the elitism of the old curriculum were used to justify turning schooling into vocational training, based on ‘an increasingly instrumental view that education was a means to an end – usually expressed as the expectation of future employment’. As Young explains, this shift was not limited to particular subjects, or to low-achieving pupils, but became the ethos running through education as a whole: ‘Even the academic curriculum took on these “instrumental” features. Physics and history were given more priority because they were subjects valued by the top universities, rather than because they involved “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake”.’

The anti-elitism of this second approach did nothing to tackle social inequality. Indeed, it makes the problems more entrenched, by denying pupils from lower-income backgrounds their ‘entitlement to knowledge’ – which, in Young’s view, should be the core purpose of schools. And at any level, turning the pursuit of knowledge into a race for qualifications ends up denying the very purpose of education: to know the world in order to transform it.

If teaching can do anything to give young people the means to shape their own destiny, it is this: provide access to the best of what is known, with the recognition that this knowledge can be developed and challenged. This, argue the authors of Knowledge and the Future School, can best be done through subjects: ‘the most reliable tools we have for enabling students to acquire knowledge and make sense of the world’.

Here we come to the future-three curriculum. The authors envisage it as more dynamic than the future-one assumption that the future is given by the past; it ‘does not treat knowledge as “given” but fallible and always open to change through the debates and research of the particular specialist community’. Yet unlike future two, ‘the openness of future three is not arbitrary or responsive to any kind of challenge – it is bounded by the epistemic rules of the particular specialist communities’. Ultimately, the future-three curriculum provides ‘a resource for teachers who seek to take their students beyond their experience in the most reliable ways we have’.

In this way, the authors tackle the challenge posed both by the instrumentalism of the New Labour government’s educational agenda, and the comfort blanket of traditionalism preferred by the current Coalition government. Their book is an engaging reminder of the need to avoid easy solutions, and to keep thinking.


UK: Head teacher 'bans primary school children from running in the playground in case they injure themselves'

Primary school children have been banned from running in the playground in case they fall over and injure themselves.  Pupils at Riverview Junior School in Gravesend, Kent were told they could not move around too quickly because they might bump their heads.

Parents are furious about the ban - saying that children need to 'let off steam' during their breaks as well as getting exercise by running around.

Rachael Sparks said that her 11-year-old son Diesel had returned home upset after being told not to run outside at school.  She said that she checked with headmistress Pam Wenbam, because she could not believe that it was true, before realising that a ban had in fact been imposed.

'I went in to school to speak to them as I thought he must have misunderstood,' Ms Sparks said. 'What else is a playground for in a primary school if not for running around and letting off a bit of steam?  'I was lucky enough to get to speak to the head, Ms Wenban. I said, "I just want to clarify if this is true."

'She started off by saying we've asked them to slow down a bit, but then it transpired that they had banned running.'  The school claims that the ban is intended to tackle a specific 'chasing' game which has caused children to hurt themselves.

Ms Sparks said: 'She went on to say that due to some children not looking where they were going, there had been incidents of bumped heads.  'She claimed due to this it was her duty of care towards the children that had prompted her to ban running. They are not allowed to play British Bulldog, they are not allowed to play football.

'I know children do get the occasional bump to the head or grazed knee while running around on the playground but having spoken to a number of parents as well as children, 100 per cent of both expressed that running and getting the occasional minor injury was most definitely preferable to not running at all.

'I don't want to run the school down but I think it is a step too far. Kids have been bumping their heads and grazing their knees for hundreds of years.'

Ms Wenband said: 'We have asked children to refrain from playing a particular chasing game in the playground as we have found the increasing numbers taking part has caused some injuries, including a fractured collarbone.  'We are concerned for the safety of the children and need to stop this particular game until we can establish a safer way for them to play.

'When the weather is dry and sunny children can run and play more safely on the school playing field.'


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