Teaching Tolerance Amid Tension

Mike Baker, BBC News, July 15

How will schools react to the news that the London suicide bombers were “home grown” and that one of them had worked as a learning mentor in a primary school?

It is, perhaps fortunately, nearly the end of the academic year so there is not much longer for schools to deal with any extra tension or anxiety that might arise.

However the National Union of Teachers was sufficiently concerned about the risks of heightened tension between ethnic and religious groups this week to issue new guidance to its members.

They may well have been right to do so. After the 2001 attacks on America, a number of Islamic schools in Britain closed because of fears of an anti-Muslim backlash.

During the second Gulf War there were also a number of incidents in schools.

Bomber praised

The NUT identified three possible risks: dealing with pupils’ anxiety after the attacks, the potential for bullying of ethnic minority (especially Muslim) pupils, and threats against Muslim teachers.

Schools, perhaps more than any other institution, are intimately involved in their local communities.

Take, for example, Hillside Primary School in Beeston, Leeds. This was where the suspected suicide bomber Mohammed Sidique Khan once worked as a learning mentor.

In an area of high social deprivation, with a highly transient population including many ethnic minorities, it was probably a beacon of calm and security for many of its pupils.

The school has, in the past, struggled to recruit staff. Yet a recent Ofsted report said it was led and managed well and provided a good education for its pupils.

Mohammed Sidique Khan was working at the school in the year that Ofsted’s inspectors visited.

Although their report, as is customary, does not give any individual’s names, it did specifically mention the role of the learning mentors and learning support assistants.

It said they were a “strength” of the school’s teaching. At the time, Kahn was one of just two learning mentors there.

Awareness

Since the bombing, parents of pupils at the school have attested to his popularity with the children.

Against this background of caring support one can barely imagine the sense of shock and disruption there must now be at the school with the realisation of Kahn’s involvement.

On the wider front, Hillside had, according to the inspectors, an excellent record in religious education.

It successfully promoted pupils’ “awareness of sacredness, ritual and belief, associated with Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam”.

This is just the sort of approach recommended by the NUT to defuse tension.

Hillside, and other schools in Leeds and elsewhere, may now need to be on the lookout for bullying or threats against Muslim pupils and staff.

Dispelling myths

The NUT guidance also urges strong pastoral support, not just for those children who might have a link to the bombings, but also for the greater numbers who may be alarmed by what they have seen and heard in the media.

The NUT advice goes beyond reassuring pupils. It also says schools have a role in “challenging” Islamophobia.

However, should schools specifically set out to meet potential Islamophobia head on?

Or should they respond only if they perceive a problem, such as bullying or name-calling?

The NUT is in no doubt: it argues that schools have a “crucial role” to play in helping to “dispel myths about Muslim communities”.

This is likely to be a harder task than it was before 7 July.

Yet how much time should schools devote to understanding, even promoting, other faiths? There are those who believe multiculturalism in schools is dangerous.

In the Daily Mail this week, columnist Melanie Phillips suggested multiculturalism was responsible for promoting “a lethally divisive culture of separateness in which minority cultures are held to be equal if not superior to the values and traditions of the indigenous majority”.

She further argued that multiculturalism had created a “victim culture” that discouraged anyone from challenging wrongdoing among ethnic minority people.

We have been through this controversy before, especially in Bradford, not far from Leeds.

However, for schools like Hillside Primary and others with a multicultural pupil intake, it is hard to see how teachers can explain what has happened without some context and understanding of Islam.

The NUT guidance says pupils should “understand that there is no natural link between Muslims and terrorism”. That may be the very attitude Ms Phillips complains about.

In a multi-ethnic school, with the risk of racial and religious tensions, it is an understandable message for teachers to give.

Conspiracy

However, while surely everyone would agree there is no automatic link between Muslims and terrorism, it might not be so helpful to say the recent terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.

BBC Radio 1 found, at the end of last week, many young people in the Muslim community around Luton who simply refused to believe there was any connection at all between Muslims and the bombings.

They seemed to believe the bombs were part of a conspiracy to damage the Muslim community.

That sort of refusal to accept events does seem dangerous.

The key thing for schools, surely, is that pupils should be encouraged to challenge stereotypes of every kind.

In short, students need context and perspective to understand this situation. They do not need a whitewash.

If it is not explained to them that a tiny minority of Muslim fundamentalists believe such violence is justified then there is little chance of understanding it.

Lessons in citizenship, religious education and PSHE (personal, social and health education) can all be deployed to this end.

Even the youngest pupils will have picked up on the London bombings either from the television or from family and friends.

They will, inevitably, absorb some of the stereotypical images and views.

Schools can provide the background they will need to begin to understand terrorism and where it springs from.

They can also argue the case for students to show tolerance and kindness to their fellow pupils.

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