Thursday, March 4, 2021

UK teachers must report suspected extremism


The UK began a policy on July 1 of requiring school teachers to report to authorities any extremist tendencies they notice in their students, a mandated reporting law that parallels laws in the US designed to protect children from sexual or physical abuse by requiring teachers to report any suspected abuse to authorities.

Extremist “leanings or behavior by students” must be reported under a new law, the Wall Street Journal reports. The government is stepping up its efforts to fight terrorism, and the new law applies not only to teachers, even preschool teachers, but also to all public officials like health workers. In the US, mandated reporter laws have protected more than a few children, but they have also destroyed the careers of many a good educator whom a few lying students didn’t like.

The approved law in the UK, now in full force and effect, puts teachers on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. “Being drawn into terrorism includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit,” the law says.

It also requires schools to ensure students don’t access extremist materials online, but Muslim groups and school officials alike say the new law impedes free speech and reduces the learning opportunities students have. Our main point today comes from Sean Coughlan, an education correspondent for the BBC:

How do you stop extremism among young people? How do you challenge the ideology that encourages teenagers to ghost themselves away from Yorkshire or London into war zones in Syria and Iraq?

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, says “schools are not experts in this field, they are not part of our security apparatus—in fact, their relationship with families depends on their not being part of it.

“They cannot police our borders or monitor the internet at large.”

As education is brought in to counter extremism, it raises some big questions about what really works.

How much can schools influence young people, compared with the powerful voices on the internet or among their friends? And what arguments will resonate with young people who feel that their religion is being stigmatised?

This is part of a global conversation too, in a way not really been seen before. The head teachers’ speech in an assembly hall is competing with information and propaganda on social media from all around the world.

Although I believe schools need to have a clear policy against actual extremism, especially against violent acts committed in the name of an extreme cause, I believe, fundamentally, that suppressing free speech, as this new law is sure to do, isn’t the right or an effective way to get control of the effects of extremism.

In the US, we don’t report to the police the use of the N-word by a white student; we use the opportunity to educate that student and the entire student population about racism and the ill effects it has brought to this land.

Right now, parents in the UK are telling their kids, “Don’t even talk about Islam or terrorism,” because it’s better to be safe than sorry if some teacher might get the wrong idea that intellectual curiosity about other cultures, religions, and even viewpoints is some sort of implied intention to blow up a subway or commit some other terrorist act. Curiosity about Islam is not necessarily an effort on a student’s part to join ISIS.

When it comes to preschool children—and preschool teachers are covered under the UK’s new law, just as high school teachers are—kids need to be able to make mistakes in a protected environment so they can learn from those mistakes with the help and guidance of their families and teachers. Those teachers can’t compete with social media campaigns now being mounted by ISIS, but suppressing student thought and expression is exactly the wrong thing to do. We need to encourage students to talk about these ideas openly, so they can be guided down the right path, against extreme ideas, against terrorism, and toward British values.

US schools have some experience on these types of school problems, especially when it comes to the best ways to combat racism among students. The prevailing wisdom is that it’s best to confront it by allowing students the freedom to express their feelings and then educating them without punishing them for thoughts and feelings they express in an academic setting.

So wrote Diane S Pollard in her 1989 book chapter entitled “Reducing the Impact of Racism on Students: Educators can combat racism by punishing racist behaviors and honoring pluralism.” If students don’t show any racist behaviors, because their parents told them to keep silent about the subject, teachers will have no racist behaviors to punish and the problem of racism will continue to brew. If students can’t express alternative viewpoints and ideas, even to be taught the errors in their thinking, there will be no pluralism to honor, since pluralism, by definition, is the coexistence of several different viewpoints. Here’s an excerpt:

I contend that avoidance of this issue has two damaging consequences for the classroom. First, racism diverts minority students’ attention and interest from academic pursuits: because racism is a strongly negative emotional experience for these students, they are likely to spend time and energy responding to it in nonconstructive ways. Second, ignoring or avoiding racism sends signals to white students that racism is acceptable or at least a trivial issue.

Educators need to do more than simply understand and identify racism and its impact on students. They need to actively counteract this problem.

A brief explanation of this series

This is the second of a series of blog posts that will run several times every week, beginning with the new school year. We’ll find a quote short enough but newsworthy enough to include on these pages and open the gates. The series is titled by the Topics tag “Constructive Dialog” and has the goal of pushing for equality under the umbrella of educational opportunity for all students.

We hope, with this series, to stimulate constructive dialog between students, school officials, and caring members of our larger communities, including parents, business owners, religious organizations, and that whole “village” thing that it takes to raise a child.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

Recent Posts

Md. to administer tests in math, English

Students in Md. will still have to take standardized tests this spring in math and English language arts, following action of the state board.

A week of historic cold and snow

Perseverance lands on Mars

Summer vacation, summer job, or summer school?

Biden is sworn in as 46th president

Florida balances optimism after the riots