“Notice to all passengers please do not run on the platforms. Especially if you are carrying a rucksack, wearing a big coat, or look a bit foreign.” Anonymous graffiti in the London Underground after the Police killed innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menzes 2005.
This is the start of the inspiring autobiography “Radical” by Maajid Nawaz. I would suggest this is a must read for any school leader trying to understand the anger felt by any teenager and the subsequent risk of induction into violent radical ideology. Nawaz charts his Southend schooldays, the casual daily racism and appalling authority apathy he and so many British teenagers of the 1970/80s endured, to his work with the controversial Islamist group Hizib al Tahir to his capture, imprisonment and torture in Egypt’s notorious jails. However, this is a story of hope as he renounces violence with the seeds of this transformation being found in friendship, compassion and key family influences.
Like many, I have struggled to define how we as a school promote ‘Britishness.’ Partly, I feel my confusion has been an assumption that the promotion of tolerance, compassion, inclusivity and freedom of speech is simply what teachers and most schools do and should do. ‘Britishness’ is a poorly chosen, clumsy phrase given to the teaching profession by a Conservative government who it would seem now plan to censor freedom of expression via new policies for Ofcom, the board that regulates TV, radio and broadcasting. Oscar Wilde famously paraphrased Voltaire as stating “I may not agree with you, but I defend your right to make an ass of yourself.” Who will ever forget Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, which did more to destroy the BNP message than to recruit those to its racist agenda? Thus, I believe, the true nature of Britishness is to allow individuals to formulate their own ideas and beliefs – no matter how distasteful they may first appear to be.
Nevertheless, it is easy to be smug and assume that the curriculum and school message is meeting the needs of all. On a recent visit to the House of Commons, my Muslim students asked if there was an area to pray. Their response to being placed in a cupboard was “How do these people represent our community?” School leaders have already expressed concern about the GCSE schedule for 2016 being in the middle of Ramadan! What message is that sending the Muslim community? In a later discussion regarding immigration, Ali asked what he could do if his forthcoming exam paper was marked by a racist. Despite my reassurances, he felt his name Ali, sadly disadvantaged and stigmatized him even in 2015, thirty years after Nazwaz’s unacceptable Southend experience. His understandable nervousness and the House of Commons experience, issues a warning that we cannot be complacent. If we truly want a multicultural society, we have to find ways of giving all who make up Britain an opportunity to be heard and represented. We cannot afford to play piecemeal with peoples’ beliefs. We genuinely have to give all the opportunity to speak and be heard.
In the recent general election, like many others our school hosted hustings and debates discussing topics such as immigration, fracking and whether we were truly European. We were endeavouring to give our students the opportunity to think and explore their opinions and try to allow their beliefs to formulate; which policy and which political party would be most representative of their views. To an extent, these essential opportunities develop our students’ skills. Hopefully their confidence and beliefs will evolve (and maybe in the future they will take part in the political process through a vote!). However, when hatred surfaces in whatever guise, schools have to be seen to tackle it. This, I believe, is the true characteristic of being British. To be defined as having British characteristics would be to be seen as being fair, standing up for all people, especially the vulnerable in our society and not allowing hatred, and unnecessary isolation to fester and breed thereby becoming the root cause of future terror, often through the spreading of urban mythology and supposition of the unknown. Only by producing schools whereby all can thrive, be successfully educated and be heard will we prevent people following dangerous radicalism. This will not be done by censoring ideas or keeping groups of people in the shadows. It will be done by producing a curriculum that openly challenges ignorance and meets the students’ needs, giving them hope in a positive, productive future free of stereotypes as part of our British diverse community- now there’s a radical idea for the equalities minister Nicky Morgan to contemplate.