Should a teacher show a picture of the prophet Mohammed in the classroom? In the wake of the ugly scenes recently at Batley Grammar school when one teacher did just that, there are few questions more relevant to the work of a teacher right now.
But when one trainee student at Manchester Metropolitan university contacted his course leader to ask whether they would support someone who did show such an image in class, the response was not the one he expected.
The university’s reaction was telling: it did not initially respond to the trainee’s email request for advice. Instead it contacted him a month later saying he must attend a disconcertingly named ‘fitness to practise cause for concern meeting’.
Don’t go into teaching if you care about free speech. That seems to be the takeaway message for trainee teachers at Manchester Metropolitan university.
The trainee’s assertion that he ‘would not hesitate to use drawings of any religious figure’ in the classroom was certainly bold. But it was a hypothetical scenario that he was using to start a discussion. The idea that a trainee can be disciplined for an action they have not yet committed is not just absurd. It goes against the very fundamentals of education and training, where open debate should be encouraged, not shut down. After all, surely a teaching training course is precisely the place where these sorts of discussions should take place?
Manchester Metropolitan university’s response may be cowardly, but it still pales in comparison to the ongoing silence from the government in relation to the Batley Grammar school incident. The Department of Education seems to be doing everything in its power to distance itself from the case, and its profound and worrying implications for the teaching profession.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, seems in no hurry to question the remit of the investigation launched by the trust that runs Batley Grammar school. Nor does he seem to want to face up to the implications that its conclusions might have for the wider teaching profession.
Is such an investigation really going to give trainee teachers the reassurance they need that they are indeed ‘free to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their curriculum, including where they are challenging or controversial’, as the Department for Education stressed in the wake of the events at Batley? Not if the actions of Manchester Metropolitan university are anything to go by.
The terms of the Batley Grammar investigation are depressingly narrow. In March, the trust said the investigation would examine ‘how certain materials, which caused offence, came to be used in a Religious Studies lesson at Batley Grammar.’ There was no obvious mention of investigating the school’s response to the use of these materials and whether suspending the teacher was an appropriate course of action.
When a member of their profession remains in hiding, unable to return to work, is it any wonder trainee teachers are asking what the implications of this case are for their own teaching practices? If they cannot turn to either the Department for Education or their own course leaders for reassurance, then who are they supposed to ask for advice?
Surely now is the time for the government to step in and give the investigation at Batley Grammar the clout, independence and scope it deserves. They owe it to the thousands of trainee and qualified teachers who are concerned about what exactly they are permitted to teach, and whether they will be defended should their choice of material prove too controversial.
The government’s refusal to take charge of the investigation means that there’s a lack of guidance as to what approach teachers and those who are training them should take. The Department for Education’s own statement on Batley Grammar provided no clarity. It simply said that teachers had to ‘balance’ freedom of speech with the need to ‘promote respect and tolerance between people of different faiths and beliefs’. What this means in practice, nobody quite knows.