The ASCL recommendation that Katie Hopkins be allowed to speak in schools, as long as alternative views are presented, is dangerous and potentially misleading, says Bill Bolloten
Last month the journalist Katie Hopkins announced a series of school talks for 14 to 16-year-olds, which she has branded the “Stand Strong School Tour”.
Hopkins has a well-documented history of making comments that are not only offensive, but fit the Oxford Dictionary definition of hate speech: “Abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation”. Examples include:
– Saying she would use “gunships” against migrant boats.
– Tweeting about Black people: “If your lives matter why do you stab and shoot each other so much.”
She is particularly notorious for the hate-filled, abusive and inflammatory language she directs at Muslims and was recently axed from LBC radio, after calling for a “final solution” to Islamist terrorism in the wake of the Manchester Arena attack. Before the month of Ramadan this year she tweeted: “Without food these sods get nasty.”
It is hard to see why any school would consider it would be appropriate to invite Hopkins. At a time of renewed far-right activity and a rise in anti-Muslim and anti-migrant hate crimes, it would indeed be potentially dangerous to do so.
Roanna Carleton-Taylor, co-founder of group Resisting Hate, reflected recently in the Huffington Post on the context of the tweet about Ramadan:
“This isn’t an isolated example of a journalist having a strong opinion and expressing it unwisely, this is a spiteful sequence of online hate tweets, abusive newspaper articles and bigoted radio appearances displaying mockery and cruelty to people from different community groups.”
Inviting Hopkins could harm the trust of parents from Muslim and other communities that their children will be supported to feel positive and secure about their identity, beliefs and values. It would damage work to create a safe, respectful environment for all children, whatever their background and beliefs. It would undermine the integrity of provision for pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.
It was therefore disappointing to read advice from the Association of School and College Leaders that could open the door to Hopkins speaking in schools.
An ASCL expert on the Prevent strategy suggested “a figure like Hopkins could be hosted if schools presented alternative points of view.”
Providing “balance” does not make speakers who promote far-right, antisemitic, racist and Islamophobic views suitable for a school audience. Nor is there any official guidance to that effect.
Would ASCL advise that a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier be invited?
There is a real danger that advice like this might facilitate extreme far-right speakers being given a platform in schools as holders of legitimate opinions. Would the ASCL advise schools that a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier be invited, provided a speaker with an “alternative point of view” is also present?
The ASCL should have informed Schools Week readers that discussions about whether to host a controversial external speaker must comply with the public sector equality duty. This requires schools to have due regard for the need to eliminate unlawful harassment of pupils and staff. The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as “unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”
In this context, having due regard would involve a careful and rigorous analysis of the impact a visit from Hopkins would have on pupils’ wellbeing and safety, including very real risks that it might lead to bullying of pupils or the use of derogatory language.
It would be helpful for the ASCL to review the advice they provide on external speakers to ensure it covers statutory equality requirements, supports schools to stay aligned with their inclusive values, and outlines the positive ways that controversial issues can be covered in the classroom.
Bill Bolloten is an independent education consultant and an associate consultant for The EAL Academy. Robin Richardson and Rob Ferguson also contributed to this article.