1 April 2021
A cultural issue.
By Lynda Goetz
Last week Batley Grammar School closed its doors and the headmaster, Gary Kibble, issued an apology as Muslim parents and representatives of local Muslim groups gathered at the school gates to protest vociferously and demand the sacking of a teacher who showed a cartoon of Mohammed to pupils during a class, apparently on the subject of blasphemy. The academy trust, which runs the school and several others, then opened an independent investigation into the context. Meanwhile the teacher in question is suspended and remains in hiding fearful for his life, bearing in mind the fate which befell Monsieur Paty in France last year. A teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in the northwest suburbs of Paris, M.Paty fell foul of an online campaign of hatred and threats after a very similar incident in his school which resulted in him being beheaded by a young Chechen (who had nothing to do with the school) on his way home last October. National demonstrations and mourning followed.
The first question many feel needs asking is; ‘Should the school have apologised to the affronted parents or should it have immediately defended the member of its teaching staff?’ The second is should we be constantly placating those who are ‘offended’? Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, immediately condemned the protests outside the school as ‘completely unacceptable’ and added that teachers are allowed to expose pupils to ‘challenging or controversial’ issues, whilst balancing this with the ‘need to promote respect and tolerance between people of different faiths and beliefs’. Sajid Javid, the former Chancellor, and Robert Jenrick, the Communities Minister, likewise spoke out against the protests. However, the Labour MP for the area, Tracy Brabin, initially appeared to blame the teacher, and the largest teachers’ union the National Education Union (NEU) also failed to condemn the threats and intimidation faced by the Religious Studies (RS) teacher.
More recently the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, set up by the government last year in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, has concluded in its report (which came out yesterday, 31st March), to the dismay and disbelief of some, that Britain is not an ‘institutionally racist country’. David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, has condemned the report as an ‘insult’ and campaigners are already on the warpath. Given the make-up of the commission it would initially appear rather hard to fault its composition and credentials. There are four women and five men and only one of these, Martyn Oliver, appears to be a Caucasian white male. All the others would appear to be classifiable as BAME[i], (although one of the report’s main findings points out how unhelpful this term is and suggests its abolition). This has not stopped The Guardian from questioning the Commission’s attitudes to ‘institutional racism’ from the outset. Tony Sewell, who chaired the commission, in particular, seems to be mistrusted by many in the BAME communities. Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, commented “This commission long lost the confidence and the trust of the ethnic minority communities when it appointed Tony Sewell to lead it, a figure who asserts with others in this government that institutional racism does not exist.”
It does seem rather a shame that instead of looking closely at the nuanced and extensive report (257 pages) which specifically does not claim that Britain is a ‘post-racial society’, those campaigners who wanted a finding that the country was ‘institutionally racist’ are disappointed. Instead of being pleased that this is apparently not the case, they prefer to be angry and insulted. The conclusion that we have ‘one of the most successful multi-cultural societies in Europe’ should surely be welcomed, not viewed as being some sort of whitewash? It would seem however that the Left want to view this report as yet another example of the untrustworthiness of the Right, and the campaigners for minorities want to feel offended and insulted.
In a discussion in the last 5 minutes of Radio 4’s Today programme, Katherine Birbalsingh, Conservative-supporting educator and founder of the Michaela community school, clashed with Times columnist and author, Sathnam Sanghera, not over the Commission’s view that education is fundamental to continuing to resolve racial inequalities, but that the curriculum should not be ‘decolonised’. Each came from a different angle; Sanghera arguing that the way history and English are taught is not inclusive and that for example he did not study one ‘brown’ author at Cambridge. Birbalsingh pointed out that to some extent the decolonisation of education is already underway, but that part of the problem is the quality of teaching and the time available and that in any case only 40% of students even study history at GCSE.
Education is clearly flagged in the report as of massive importance in the matter of bringing equality to society. In order to deliver, both government and teaching institutions need to be able to agree on those who need help and in which areas. The abolition of the rather meaningless and possibly even insulting term BAME seems like a good place to start. As the report indicates, cultural and family differences are probably more important than ethnicity.
Tony Sewell was asked on the Today programme this morning if he was ‘anti-woke’. He laughed this off, but like Left and Right ‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’ are increasingly polarising our politics and our society. The Commission’s report refers to the ‘idealism of young people’. Being idealistic should not include a refusal to look at the other side’s arguments and suggestions. This report is optimistic, but on initial reading it does not seem to be a whitewash. Whilst it may serve, as The Guardian is quick to point out, some of the Conservatives’ own beliefs and aims, it does also indicate some positive ways forward.
Let us hope that the independent enquiry to be conducted by Batley Grammar School can be equally optimistic about the likelihood of education being able to advance the cause of equality and tolerance. Sadly, it will be too late for the RS teacher who even if/when exonerated will almost certainly not be able to return to his school to teach, in spite of the petition signed by 8,000 in his support. We can hope perhaps that living in ‘one of the most successful multi-cultural societies in Europe’ he will avoid the fate of his French counterpart Monsieur Paty.
[i] meaning Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic.