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Racism, anti-radicalisation and the role of schools

A blog post image

“Schools should just be exam factories”, said no one ever. An argument that underpins many education debates is the role of schools in a child’s social development. I’ve heard teachers say very passionately that they don’t think their responsibility should stop with teaching children about their subject. I’ve heard equally passionate pleas that teachers cannot reasonably be expected to be social workers as well as teachers – they provide breakfast, clothes and the kind of support that is not in their job description. They aren’t unhappy to do it, but shouldn’t someone else step in too?

It’s a huge debate, one that I’m not going to pretend to tackle entirely here. But in light of recent stories, I’d like to talk about it in relation to schools dealing with racism.

To set some context, I’ve had this image from the @LeadingLearner blog stuck in my mind recently:

I keep coming back to that first sentence. I don’t undervalue the role of schools; I think that education is one of the most, if not the single most, important vehicle for social change. But the problem is that schools don’t exist in a vacuum outside of society. So I was deeply unsurprised when I read about the recent survey of school children that, to quote the Guardian:

“... found widespread misconceptions about the number of immigrants and non-white people living in England, as well as negative attitudes towards Muslims and those born overseas”

These are misconceptions that exist outside of schools - they're not bred within. I'd rather not namecheck any media outlets and organisations that may be responsible, but let's just say that I think they exist.

So what should schools be expected to do in the face of this? I put this to two teacher friends. One said that she feels it is her responsibility to speak up and educate when she hears similarly unfounded remarks in her school. But she also said she doesn’t see these misapprehensions manifest as racial tension between pupils. These problems come as baggage, but the same pupils that express disdain for the abstract concept of ‘immigration’ don’t actually relate this to other pupils who are possibly second or first generation immigrants.

The other teacher said that, in the three years he’s been teaching at his school, he’s not encountered a single word of racism or Islamophobia. That isn’t to say it doesn’t exist, and I’m loathe to use anecdotes as conclusive evidence – these are only meant as observations. But, his school has a racially diverse pupil population and he doesn’t encounter any racism between pupils. Said teacher and I went to secondary school together in Nottingham, in a far from monocultural area, and I also don’t remember any racism. Maybe I was just blind to it – being a middle class white male I do pretty well at not being subjected to racism. I mean, I got bullied for having long hair (early teenage discovery of Nirvana, it’s a well-worn trope) and not hitting puberty until pretty late, but that is par for the course in secondary school bullying.

I don’t know what schools can do, or be expected to do, about the results of the aforementioned survey, or continuing negative attitudes towards immigrants and Muslim people, other than being conscientious and educating pupils to the best of their ability – and this inevitably means socially, not just academically.

What worries me is what we're also seeing creep in under the guise of obligations to combat extremism in schools. We’ve seen recent stories of anti-radicalisation software that flags keywords and phrases like ‘jihadi bride’ and ‘jihobbyist’ to alert teachers of potential (yes, potential) radicalisation, and surveys to catch extremism in primary school children. Concern has been expressed that measures like these are ‘anti-radicalisation’ in name, yet disproportionately target Muslim children in reality. Will this really make it easier for schools to create an environment where Islamophobia is taught against? Is the correlation between the attitudes we're seeing in that survey and stories like this not strikingly obvious?

We’re already asking schools to fix problems that society is a long way from solving, and I fear we’re making it an increasingly difficult ask. If the answer really is that school staff are expected to educate socially as much as academically, they should be supported - not hindered.

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