It’s taken me a little while to think about what to say in this post. It’s loaded with danger and possible misinterpretation, but I really feel I ought to say something.
Last week I was honoured, and I mean, completely honoured, to be invited to work in Park View school in Birmingham. For those of you who don’t know, Park View was one of the so called ‘Trojan Horse’ schools, accused of failing to protect children from Islamic radicalisation. As a result of its Ofsted inspection in March 2014, 22 members of staff were suspended (this in a four form entry school) and many others left in the Summer. The staff body was decimated. Now I don’t know and I can’t comment on what was happening at the school at that time. But I do know the impact that this decision has had on learning and on learners.
In November, Ofsted returned. The suspended staff were still under investigation and so the school was dependent on long term supply. You can’t replace a member of staff under investigation. And because the school was in special measures, they were not allowed to employ NQTs (or at least were strongly advised against) or to take TeachFirst. And not many teachers were beating a path to the door of a school mired in controversy. So it seems a tad unfair that in this second inspection, the school were criticised for a fall in the standards of teaching and learning. But they were. In desperation, Assistant Head, Lee Donaghy, put out a plea to teachers who might be willing to go to the school and lend a helping hand. And last week, David Weston, Lisa Jane Ashes and I went along to see what we could do to help. Now, we’ve very flatteringly been called EduHeroes for this offer. And we’re really not. First of all, we were paid. Secondly, it was the best CPD we’ve ever had. Thirdly, the real EduHeroes were those still in the school, still keeping smiles on their faces after all that trauma.
We found a staff body reeling but determined to be there for the children. We found children who were desperately hungry to learn, with high aspirations, great senses of humour and who were warm, welcoming and curious. We found a newly appointed senior management team trying hard to build a vision and future for the school. Early, early days of regrowth, but characterised by people who just wanted the best for the children, and also who were scared and scarred. How on earth do you ensure that you can never, ever be accused of radicalising children while answering some of the questions they have about how they are perceived by the world?
I was teaching the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to Year 7 and a unit of work on Information Texts in Year 8. In my first lesson, I decided to work on context for Y7. I always have a key question – this one was “How do human beings learn to hate one another?” We looked at Nazi propaganda. We explored how stereotyping leads to prejudice; how prejudice leads to discrimination and how with the help of propaganda, discrimination can lead to genocide. Did they have any examples of any of these key words? Any questions?
“Miss is Gaza a genocide”?
“Miss is what they write about Muslims in the media propaganda”?
Several times as I taught this lesson to different groups, the subject of the perception of Muslims among the wider British population came up. Not in anger, but in wounded confusion. Gaza came up. Not in anger, but in worry and fear. These children are seeing on the television, other children like them being blown up. It scares them. Under normal circumstances, we, as teachers, would explore these fears. Give the children information. Let them talk. In this circumstance, under the hard light of an accusation, it is hard to feel free to open up these lines of exploration. Yet we must.
When I have taught the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in the past, I have followed it up with a unit of work on the creation of Israel and the Palestine/Israeli conflict. It seems to me that it is impossible for children to learn about either the Holocaust or the conflict without connecting them. But I didn’t feel I could suggest this here. The mood of the staff (and who would blame them) was “best stay clear”.
What happens when human beings have fears, worries, concerns that are left unattended to? What happens if they suppress those questions? How do we know that they are not asked of others who might not offer a balanced or open viewpoint? What happens to a child who believes that they are a part of a hated minority in a country where the majority fears and suspects them? I saw calm, gentle, kind, open minded children turning these worries over and over in their minds. And we have a responsibility, a duty to help them process those worries and to show them that the vast majority of the white British population does not think negatively of them. Shame on our media for portraying us otherwise. Shame on us for not making it clear that we do not believe this myth about our Muslim countrymen.
I don’t have an answer for Park View – I suspect they’ll be just fine. On our second day, Ofsted arrived. The senior management team smiled and sailed through like swans. The children hardly noticed. The staff shrugged and got on with the job in hand, as they’ve done throughout. I bloody loved that school. And those kids. But I ask us all to think about the impact that our own neurosis has on our language and actions; how our myopia about the messages that our media send to children affects them and how we speak to, think through and answer those difficult questions that all our children ask. We should never hide the world from them and we should hold their hands as we seek to make it a better place.