Joanna Rossiter

Why aren’t the teaching unions speaking out about Batley?

Why aren't the teaching unions speaking out about Batley?
(Photo: Getty)
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‘Sadly, his life here in Batley is over. Even if he gets his job back, how can he possibly return to Batley Grammar School? It will be far too risky. And how will he be able to walk around the town with his kids, doing normal things knowing that he could be killed?’

These were the harrowing words of the father of Batley Grammar’s suspended RE teacher yesterday. It’s hard to believe that a professional working in a liberal democracy like Britain, whose only ‘crime’ was to use a drawing to start a class discussion, is now facing a lifetime of police protection, unable to return to work and living in fear for his family’s life.

More shocking still has been the lack of support from the teaching unions in response to this teacher’s treatment. His family has accused the headteacher of Batley Grammar of ‘throwing him under a bus’, which seems to be an apt description of what the unions have done too. Despite offering 'support’ to the suspended teacher, Britain’s largest teaching union the NEU is yet to condemn his treatment, saying that while the school is investigating the incident ‘it would not be appropriate to make any further comment.’ This is the same Union that loudly protested about the reopening of schools on the grounds of teacher safety in January due to the pandemic. How tragic that, when a member of their profession’s life is genuinely and imminently at risk, they have not spoken out against threats made against teachers. Perhaps they were too busy calling for the abolition of GCSEs, which the union was pushing for on Friday, less than 24 hours after Batley Grammar School announced the teacher’s suspension. Astonishingly, they also found time on 14 March to issue a statement criticising the police’s ‘gross mishandling’ of the Sarah Everard protest. And yet they have singularly failed to apply the same scrutiny to their own profession in the light of what happened at Batley Grammar.

While the NEU keeps mum, it has been the pupils themselves campaigning for the reinstatement of their teacher. A petition set up by pupils of Batley Grammar has amassed more than 64,000 signatures to date.

There seems to be a double standard at work when it comes to disciplining teachers in the UK. In May last year, children as young as 11 at Sentamu Academy in Hull were exposed to pornographic images and video after a homework assignment encouraged them to do online research on the definition of hardcore pornography. The principal apologised but no teacher was suspended, despite calls for further action from parents and faith groups. What was it about the Batley Grammar teacher’s actions that warranted such comparatively firm action? As in Hull, both the teacher and the head issued an apology. Was what he did really worse than encouraging a group of 11-year-olds to Google hardcore porn? Conversely, in June 2020, a headteacher was suspended from her Newcastle school for telling a local radio station that some teachers were ‘sat at home doing nothing’ during the first lockdown. It’s a strangely dysfunctional system that issues suspensions to those who exercise free speech whilst leaving actions that could cause genuine harm to children unchecked.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that in the classroom freedom of speech is a one-way street that encompasses certain discourses and not others. Nobody is suggesting we ban James Joyce from English lessons or university syllabuses, for instance, because he said priests were ‘barbarians with crucifixes’, or censoring Nietzsche because he argued that the Christian notion of the divine ‘is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God the world has ever seen.’ A teacher who showed their class an image of Andres Serrano’s controversial ‘piss Christ’ would certainly not face a suspension. On Christianity, at least, classroom debate is rigorous and free flowing – exactly how it should be.

But why, when it comes to certain faiths and cultural orthodoxies, do the much-vaunted values of free speech and scrutiny get hurled out of the window? It doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to envisage a teacher suffering a similar suspension for discussing climate change scepticism with their class or for making a misstep on the increasingly sensitive subjects of gender or sexuality. Whilst other religions and ideals are fair game, Islam seems to have been admitted into the magic circle of societal issues that are too taboo to debate.

The Batley Grammar debacle has dislodged what should be an underlying tenet of every British classroom. Even if the suspension is rescinded, the damage is already done. Having witnessed the abandonment of the Batley teacher by his own profession in the face of horrific harassment, teachers will stick to sanitised lessons that are void of controversy. And pupils will be left poorer as a result.