Schools must fight to defend freedom of expression
The cowardice of senior staff at Batley Grammar should be a lesson to all educationalists about the importance of defending open discussion
One of my favourite cheesy films is Mona Lisa Smile. Julia Roberts plays an enlightened, feminist-y teacher pushing the boundaries of a socially conservative, private women’s college in Massachusetts. The moral of the story is that Roberts’ art classes and an emphasis on open debate inspire her students to realise that the world is bigger and more exciting than the four walls of their dormitories. In being shocked by the things their teacher tells them, the students gain the confidence to form their own opinions about what their futures will look like.
The events of last week show just how far cancel culture has expanded
While Roberts’ fictional teacher gives up her job in favour of travelling Europe when the college attempts to restrict what she can and can’t teach, real-life scenarios rarely have Hollywood endings. A teacher at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire has been forced to go into hiding after protesters at the school demanded he be sacked and prosecuted. His crime? Showing his class cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, allegedly from a copy of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Accurate information about what actually happened is still unclear, but it is alleged that students were shown a caricature with “Islamophobic tropes” during a discussion about blasphemy in a religion class. In fact, the only information that has found its way out has been the teacher’s name — a frightening prospect given the fact that the French teacher Samuel Party was beheaded in broad daylight just five months ago for showing students similar images.
The events of last week show just how far cancel culture has expanded, from online spats and campus politics to the world of everyday life. Without taking a breath, the headteacher of Batley Grammar, Gary Kibble, suspended the teacher and issued an “unequivocal” apology to the crowd of angry parents at the school gates. A police officer even had to read the school’s statement to the crowd, who had caused such a fuss that the school was forced to close. But Kibble’s grovelling sacrifice of his staff member hasn’t dented the protesters’ demands — some have told the press that “he should never teach again”, supported by a local Imam who demanded that “serious action [be] taken”.
It seems the only people at the school who have some courage to stand up for freedom of expression are the suspended teacher’s own cohort. “Against all odds, students wish to make a statement and reinstate him back as a teacher in Batley Grammar School due to his pure intentions”, says a petition, allegedly written by Batley Grammar’s pupils. It’s incredibly poignant that the adults both working in the school building and shouting from the school gates have been shown up by the students who know and love their teacher. The petition has since hit over 66,000 signatures from people across the country. “This is our repayment to that RS Teacher”, it says, “and if he sees this, we have a simple message for him. We thank you for everything you’ve done for us.”
Parents should not be able to bring a school to a halt because they don’t like the content of a class
Where are this teacher’s colleagues? Where are the teacher’s unions? Where are the authorities, who are supposed to protect citizens from intimidation and threats? The fact that the only people supporting the teacher’s right to “teach” kids difficult things like blasphemy, offence and free speech are the kids themselves tells you a lot about the state of education today. The fact that angry parents are calling for the teacher’s head (this time metaphorically, unlike the tragic murder of Paty) shows how flimsy the boundaries between school and home life have become. Parents should not be able to bring a school to a halt because they don’t like the content of a class. Those claiming this is a principled stance against islamophobia are being wilfully ignorant to the context in which the images were shown. Anyone who has sat through a whiney PTA meeting knows how irritating complaining parents can be — these protests are no different. But instead of teachers rolling their eyes, the protesters have been emboldened by the school caving in to their censorious demands.
The cowardice of senior staff at Batley Grammar should be a lesson to all educationalists about the importance of defending open discussion. Schools should defend the idea that children are not there to have their own prejudices or beliefs cosseted, but to be educated — an experience that can often be difficult, challenging and sometimes upsetting. Many of us will remember a time when the assumptions we had about life were challenged by listening to views and opinions that were new to us. Part of a comprehensive religious education is to learn about the fact that the world is full of people with different beliefs (and none). If a student can’t handle the idea that there are some people who will mock and ridicule beliefs that they hold dear, sometimes in overtly offensive ways, there’s no hope of them being able to survive the world outside the school gates.
A precautionary, patronising approach to education has long been the view of the British education system
There is no merit in upsetting students for the sake of it — especially when it comes to personal feelings like religious beliefs. But, according to the students’ petition, this is not what the teacher was doing — “we have watched our RS teacher defend the integrity of all religions within classes”, it says, “and we do not and will not believe he is racist in any way”. Instead of balancing the worth of the lesson against the complaints made by some students, the school seems to have jumped to the conclusion that all students are too soft to handle controversial subjects in any context. This safety-first attitude should come as a surprise to no one. A precautionary, patronising approach to education has long been the view of the British education system — from bans on red pens in marking and calls to cancel exams to combat “stress”, students are no longer expected to be pushed outside of their comfort zone.
What the crowd at Batley Grammar’s gates and the cowards in the headteacher’s office have in common is their inability to act like adults. We are all supposed to be children now — constantly in need of protection from hurt feelings or differing views, screaming for attention when things happen that we don’t like. The students don’t want to be infantilised in this way — their petition makes clear that they want to “educate the future generations” by not shying away from tricky subjects or uncomfortable views. What these kids understand (that their parents and teachers seem to have forgotten) is that education is about taking risks. Here’s hoping Batley Grammar sees sense and issues an apology to the one person who really deserves it.
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