Reporting on students’ religious views will squash classroom debate

The new powers of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act asks teachers to report on their students’ religious views as a matter of national security. This will squash open debate, free speech and political dissent, making schools fearful places for many pupils, says David Lundie

Academics and community leaders roundly criticised the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in a recent press statement. From July 1, the Act placed a statutory duty on organisations, including schools, to report individuals suspected of being at risk from radicalisation.

Writers of the joint statement,which included Asim Qureshi from CAGE, the Muslim rights’ group, and Professor David Miller of Bath University, criticised the fixation on religion, and in particular Islam, as well as the way the Act defined radicalisation and extremism, which, they said, “reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims”.

The emphasis in the Act on the definition of “non-violent extremism” has a presumption (unsupported by evidence) that there is a conveyor belt between conservative, radical and violent religious views. This is particularly troubling for teachers who are being asked, in effect, to report on their students’ religious views as a matter of national security.

But is this view an over-reaction to a perfectly legitimate security response? According to leaked information to The Sunday Times, more than 100 teachers in Birmingham currently face disciplinary action and a possible ban from teaching in the fall-out from the “Trojan Horse” investigations of 2014 – which sought to uncover a plot to radicalise young people.

Despite an education select committee in March concluding that there was “no evidence of extremism or radicalisation… and there was no evidence of a sustained plot”, the National College for Teaching and Leadership has reportedly charged 30 teachers with disciplinary offences related to the investigations, says The Sunday Times.

Many of the schools implicated in the investigations are now having problems recruiting and retaining staff and governors, and the investigations go to the heart of the relationship between communities, governance, and the values of community schools.

The atmosphere of moral panic surrounding “British values” in schools has not been conducive to the kinds of open discussion that enable students to make connections between their values, beliefs, and the wider world.

The “Does RE Work?” project, carried out by Professor James Conroy and myself, and involving in-depth case-studies of RE classrooms across the UK, suggested that a level of risk and comfort is needed for meaningful questions and links to be made during classroom discussions.

The securitisation of classrooms is likely to have the opposite effect: imposing a flat, fearful approach to religion and values.

The re-authoring of the Ofsted inspection handbook in 2014 to pay greater attention to values also risks further rigidity in the “values” propagated by England’s schools. For example, schools judged “outstanding” on the basis of their performance in helping young people achieve excellent exam grades have been increasingly subject to “safeguarding” concerns relating to issues such as students’ attitudes towards religious minorities or homosexuality. The National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools, for example, complained last October of a “climate of hostility” created by the new inspection regime.

And it is worth noting that the statutory duty now incumbent on teachers to report suspected “extremism”, did not apply to educators in the prison system in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Then, educators understood the importance of open dialogue in “de-radicalising” the adherents of violent ideology.

The framing of many of the concerns about Birmingham’s schools in terms of “safeguarding” – presenting the (Muslim) child as at once dangerous and endangered – creates a climate in which such open dialogue becomes dangerous to teachers and students alike. If England is to avoid the invidious and pervasive securitisation of schools described by Annette Fuentes in her US study Lockdown High, then there is a need to relax the white-knuckle grip of “safeguarding”. Particularly in schools with high black and minority ethnic intake (and a recent study by Demos has shown increasing polarisation of communities in schools), there is a need to recognise the chilling effect these new powers will have on open debate, free speech and political dissent – all of which would be held by most to be “fundamental British values”.

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