Category Archives: Comment

ON COVERING THE COVERAGE

‘UK Closing Christian School for Religious Intolerance’ declaimed a headline this week – a single article by an American Christian online news provider. But while it started as a single article, comment spread rapidly, embroidered as it went with observations about the rampant bigotry and fascism of  an education system (that’s ours, in case you no longer recognise it) which requires the teaching of ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’ religions in the cause of multiculturalism. (As an aside, it was a classic example of remembering that when you point a finger, there are three more pointing right back at you).

What school was the article about? It turned out that ‘school’ and ‘closing’ were about the only accurate words in the headline, because the coverage was about Durham Free School. A journalist had latched onto the fact that DFS is a Christian ethos school (not a faith school) and,  with no understanding of our school system,covered the coverage from other media. The conclusion: the sole reason the school is closing is because of persecution of Christians. Had said journalist taken the trouble to read the Ofsted report itself, he might have understood the complexity of the situation – and even that still wouldn’t have informed him as to why the Secretary of State decided to close the school. Nobody knows that apart from her and her advisers.

But covering the coverage didn’t stop there. Comment started appearing about the competence of the DFS staff, high numbers of whom had allegedly faced competency hearings in previous employment.  But that sort of information is confidential, so how could it be reported as evidenced fact? Where had it come from? Well, it came from the local MP who used Parliamentary privilege to make the allegations. The trouble is, the coverage got covered as fact and while the Head has strenuously denied it and demanded an apology, the mud will stick. So as well as having to find other jobs within just a few weeks, the staff will have to go to interviews knowing that the interviewing Head might well be thinking, ‘Was it true?’ and ‘Is this one of them?’

The problem with covering the coverage is that it creates an echo chamber that gleefully resounds with no thought for the misery that it causes. Because beyond all the coverage, accusations about staff competence and Christian persecution are people: anxious students, distressed parents and worried teachers. For some students this will be their third secondary school in a short time. The closure of DFS comes against a backdrop of other school closures in Durham that have left parents angry as political and financial expediency impact on their children’s education.  But it’s them who have to deal with the consequences of the decision. It’s them who  will have to start again, building new friendships, becoming part of new communities and adapting to new contexts.

So, in a complex situation it would help if journalists, including Christian journalists, stopped just covering the coverage. Check source documents. Don’t just grab at one little bit of opinion, filter it through your own prejudice and then pass it off as evidenced fact in search of a dystopian headline and social media traction. Because the issues run deeper than one school closure and all that it entails. Ofsted is fast losing the respect of the workforce with which it should be working. It’s becoming increasingly political – maybe even entering identity politics. And while Sir Michael Wilshaw strenuously denied that there was an anti-Christian agenda in Ofsted, he followed it up with an equally strong assertion that Muslim schools are being treated exactly the same. So an anti-faith agenda, then, Sir Michael?

A time when liberal secularism is becoming the new normal, a time when faith in the public square is under attack, is a time to speak truth to power. That requires reason, a wide evidence base and patience.  So don’t cover the coverage. It helps nobody.

 

 

PREVENT: A FURTHER LIMIT ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM?

As part of its anti-terrorism strategy, the government is currently consulting on Prevent, a document which outlines the intended duty of those working at every level of our education, health and prison services in preventing people from being drawn into terrorism.

We clearly need to address the issue of terrorism, why people espouse terrorist ideologies and why they act on that espousal. But is limiting the freedom of swathes of people the most effective way to promote a cohesive society built on strong communities? Is encouraging public sector workers to evaluate the ideologies of those children, young people and families that they serve the most effective way to nurture trust? Or will it create alienation, sectarianism and a bunker mentality in people who would like to go about their lives openly and peacefully, but who are forced into defensiveness through fear?

Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, has written in detail about the threat to freedom in our Universities, particularly with reference to the life of Christian groups on campus. Under the new mandate, all visiting speakers will have to allow sight of their presentation, including broadcast footage, at least 14 days before the visit (report sections 64-66). These rules will also apply to Further Education institutions (sections 88-90, 94-95).

The situation for schools, nurseries and child minders is a little different.  The British values/SMSC/broad and balanced curriculum agenda that is already causing alarm forms a substantial part of the requirement (section 111). The document states that ‘schools should be safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics including terrorism and the extremist ideas that are part of the terrorist ideology and learn how to challenge these ideas’ (section 106). But it will also require staff to intervene and report children at risk of being drawn into terrorism (section 113).

This raises some worrying issues. What effect will this have on the trust relationships that we build so carefully with our students and their families, if they feel they are being spied on? What climate will the fear that this engenders create in our classrooms? And how can sensitive topics be discussed in such a climate? The legislation will stifle the very open debate which it suggests that schools should facilitate.

But there are not only fundamental flaws in the content of this document, but in the thinking that informs it. There is an assumption that exposure to a dangerous idea creates a terrorist. But it clearly does not. Even exposure to extremist ideology in total does not, of itself, create terrorists. They are products of the much more complex set of cultural and personal views that inform their values: a government can neither legislate against hearts and minds nor win those hearts and minds for good through limiting the freedom of the rest of its society.

The consultation is open until midday on 30 January. However, the consultation process is itself flawed by bias. Questions assume agreement with the intended course of action and merely ask for more information to extend the reach of the strategy. In order to express any personal concern, you will need to contact your MP or write directly to the Home Office.

As we’ve seen with British values, poorly defined strategy allow for wide interpretation by monitoring authorities. Please respond to this consultation in order to protect not just the freedom of Christians, but also the essential freedoms on which our democracy is built.

 

 

JE SUIS CHARLIE

Earlier this week, The Open University published a report  titled Religion,  Security and Global Uncertainties. It concluded that politicians and the media are taking an overly simplistic view of the causes of terrorism and religious violence and the authors called for a much greater level of religious literacy. Just 24 hours later, staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by men shouting Allahu Akhbar . How can we, as Christians involved in education, respond?

Is it time to follow France’s example and become a secular state? Or is that just to succumb to a bunker mentality? Certainly, many RE teachers felt uniquely placed to lead reflection and discussion on religious violence in a way that teachers in a secular state cannot.

But it goes deeper than that, because it speaks to the very values that unite groups within our society – the freedoms that we have to speak, and write, and think as we wish because we live in a democracy. The debate is not about belief, or religion. It’s about values and the problem created by those who perpetrate violence because they don’t share those values.

Writing in News Letter, Ben Lowry contrasts the difference in response between Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, both produced in the same year. Both were equally offensive, but the responses from those offended were very different. And why, at least until it was removed following discussion on Question Time, did BBC guidelines state that ‘the prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form’? Are all other faiths fair game? Or does freedom apply to some beliefs, but not others?

Interestingly, despite a call for European solidarity in which every newspaper, broadcaster and platform should publish Charlie Hebdo covers to show that violence and intimidation won’t work, only one newspaper has so far published. Why? What are we teaching our children by tacitly accepting that any one group can limit freedom in a democracy?

Because if democracy means anything, it means the freedom to satirise, the freedom to say and do things that might be offensive and the acceptance that sometimes we will therefore be offended. But when I am offended (which I sometimes am by trolls who attack me for allegedly believing fairy tales), I don’t deal with it by murdering them, because I am a decent human being who accepts that living in a democracy means that they have the right to say what they wish. I wouldn’t knowingly cause offence – others don’t care. That’s life.

So what should we be discussing with our pupils? Is it about developing religious literacy and a vocabulary that increases understanding? Is it about tolerance and acceptance of everyone, even if they murder? Or is it about returning to the core values of our democratic society (with all its inadequacies and inequities) and insisting that those who choose to live in a democracy must respect its values, even if that means they sometimes feel offended?

There is no easy answer, but we need to find an answer which doesn’t include allowing our free society to become dominated by those who use violence to intimidate. We wouldn’t allow intimidation in our playgrounds, so to send a consistent message, we shouldn’t be allowing it in our society either.