When I woke up on 8 October 2023, I messaged my senior team: “Is this something our student body are likely to engage in and will staff need some guidance?”
What a naive question. I knew the answer. Yes, absolutely yes. But nobody truly knows how to support and guide fully without abandoning their own identity.
Evidently, this includes our government. Ministers were quick to announce their support for Israel, so we knew that direction was on its way. We also knew that in the meantime we would need to navigate a careful path between teaching our pupils to think critically and maintaining political impartiality.
What we wanted was advice and guidance. What we needed were resources and suggestions for supporting our students. What we got was a letter, ten days later, outlining what the government was doing for the Jewish community (rightly, as we are seeing record numbers of hate crimes against Jews). However, it offered no word of support for Muslim students (the most targeted faith group in religiously motivated hate crimes, as reported last March).
By the time the letter was published, young people were already engrossed in news from the region, (social and mainstream), distrust for news outlets and the government had already brewed and misinformation and disinformation had already become entrenched. Students as young as 11 (and I can only speak for the secondary phase) were sharing videos of mothers clutching their dead babies, children crying over the corpses of their families and lying in mounds of rubble they had once called ‘home’.
To many young people in British schools, the notion that the world simply does not care about the suffering of Muslim children is now a deep-rooted belief. And so it became incumbent upon us to find our own ways to respond to the situation in our schools.
Yes, there is guidance on political impartiality. Depending on your subject specialism, some of the pedagogy needed to address this may even feel somewhat intuitive. But spending evenings and weekends trying to keep up with what young people are witnessing through their screens wasn’t on anyone’s PGCE.
Even the rapidly growing sector of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) consultancy with its focus on antiracism has been greatly silent on this issue. Many teachers’ social media streams are full of stories from the warzone, sadness at the lack of action from the education world, and anger at being left to their own devices to get this right in the classroom.
Never has working in education felt so lonely, pandemic included. Of all the challenging moments in my career, this has required the most support – practically and emotionally. After seven weeks of supporting students, reviewing curriculum, guiding staff and having discussions with parents, I am utterly exhausted.
Equally, the amount of political impartiality left in me is incredibly limited. The injustices I’ve witnessed – from political powers and from many corners of the education world – have bestowed a weight like no other.
We all remember where we were when 9/11 happened and what we learned in the aftermath about our neighbours, friends and colleagues when hate against Muslims became part of everyday life. Likewise, our pupils will never forget how the adults in their school lives lived up to their duty to protect, guide, support and care for them as they watched Gaza burn.
I implore staff in schools, consultants, the DfE, parents, mainstream media and social media influencers to remember this as they consider what to do next.
Schools need an informed approach on this issue. Organisations, reading and resources should be signposted to them. Teachers need training, not judging.
Sadly, I have little faith that the DfE can (let alone has the will) to do this. It’s another reminder of how removed they are from the lives of young people and the teachers charged with their care. Little wonder both groups grow more upset and disillusioned.
Until someone steps up to the leadership plate, articles like this one will keep being written and educators like this one will keep wanting to quit.