Time to drop this non-judgmentalism
The classroom ought to be a place for developing the capacity to judge, not for stifling it.
This week, Ofsted, the British schools inspectorate, published its reports on the so-called ‘Trojan horse’ schools in Birmingham. The inquiry began when it was alleged that the governors of a number of schools in Birmingham were using their position to engender pupils with a hard line Islamic ethos. The practical result of the reports is that the ‘Trojan horse’ schools which were originally rated as inadequate will be put into ‘special measures’, which means frequent inspections and outside interference.
Yet special measures will neither save children from Islamic extremism nor will they prompt an outbreak of Islamophobia. They will, however, mean that teaching staff will have to find ways to engage pupils, some as young as five, in tedious lessons and assemblies about the risks of extremism, and ensure that pupils receive government-approved sex and relationships education to ‘prepare them for life in modern Britain’. Teachers and management will also have to pay extra attention to the government’s ‘Prevent’ anti-terrorism strategy, which requires them to refer students to mental-health services if they believe the student is at risk of being radicalised. And elsewhere, school leaders will waste time rewriting equality policies. It’s hard to see how such activities will help boost the academic achievement of pupils who, in the case of Golden Hillock School, are already performing below the national average at GCSE level.
A number of issues are driving this preoccupation with the influence of Islam in schools. As well as the popular idea that extremism develops because people have the wrong thoughts put in their heads, there is also the notion prevalent today that children are permanently damaged by the imposition of ideas held by their parents and other adults in their lives. So, raising children in line with religious beliefs that are seen by many as old fashioned is considered cruel, selfish, and tantamount to child abuse, by supposedly more enlightened atheists. Likewise, the current preoccupation with the leadership and management of a handful of schools is driven by a desire to purge those schools of individuals who hold views that are seen as incorrect. This is not being pursued in a direct way. If someone such as Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman being invited to an assembly causes alarm, if school funds meant for all pupils are being misspent on a trip restricted to only some pupils, this could rightly be dealt with directly and simply. Instead, much broader investigations are being carried out with the aim of ensuring everyone in schools behaves in a non-judgmental way. In effect, Ofsted has been asked to play the political role of determining what being non-judgmental looks like.
This non-judgmentalism demands that schools show that they accept without judging, a wide range of behaviour and ideas; and yet, at the same time, heavy-handedly deal with anyone who can’t cope with this wide ranging and unquestioning acceptance. So schools promote inclusion, good behaviour and respect, implementing bureaucratic procedures when recruiting staff which address applicants’ values and attitudes as much as their ability to do the job. Most, if not all, of the schools investigated in Birmingham will have these measures already. However, after the recent scandals, these measures are said not to be going far enough, even when students at Golden Hillock School were described by Ofsted as ‘polite’ and ‘courteous’, and the behaviour at Oldknow Academy was reported to be ‘impeccable’.
Non-judgmentalism has created this situation in schools. And more of it will only make things worse, depriving everyone of their right to self expression, including the right to challenge ideas without fear of being labelled intolerant. The reason a small group of governors are able to exert such influence over schools is because there is no longer an open debate in society about morals and ideas. Children, whose ability to judge is undeveloped, are the least well placed to know what extremism looks like. The valueless concept of non-judgmentalism imposed from on high is no substitute for the real beliefs held by adults in their immediate community, even if those beliefs include things some find unpalatable. Children growing up in a faith-based community will always develop the capacity to reject or keep those values as they grow older. But children educated in the imposed ethos of non-judgmentalism may grow up always having to rely on those outside themselves to judge right from wrong, instead of learning to judge for themselves.
Rosamund Cuckston helps organise and run the Birmingham Salon.