Teachers are terrified of causing religious offence – but there’s a price to pay for censoring lessons

Education censorship in classrooms
Teachers should lead by example and encourage children to talk, listen and learn freely

Were you ever properly taught about Islam at school? Did they explain the major themes and ideas explored in the Qur’an to you? About the Five Pillars and the importance of Muhammed? What about Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism?

I know I wasn’t. No, instead of providing me with a foundation of knowledge that would guard against prejudice and hate, racism, xenophobia and misinformation in later life, my Religious Education lessons were philosophy-lite, centred around issues like: “Is it wrong to open a Christmas present early?”

Whether the decision to avoid teaching us the fundamentals of different religions was made by the heads of my private school or the teachers themselves, I’ll never know.

But one thing is clear: 35 years ago, the reigning climate of cowardice and fear had already seeded itself in schools. We were already on a slippery slope to the here and now.

If you’re in any doubt as to what that means, the findings of a new YouGov poll of 1,132 teachers commissioned by the centre-right think tank, Policy Exchange, will fill you in.

Some 19 per cent of the English and art teachers surveyed said they had self-censored comments and lessons to avoid causing religious offence.

This, in the wake of the Batley Grammar School controversy, which saw a teacher forced into hiding in 2021 after he was targeted by parents and campaigners for showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed in class.

Meanwhile, more than half of teachers – 55 per cent – said they would not use any images of the Prophet Muhammed in classrooms, even during the teaching of Islamic art or ethics.

This is perhaps the most telling part of the poll: an illustration of where our desire to do the “right”, “progressive”, “forward-thinking” thing becomes damaging – and regressive.

Because it means that even in a rightful, supposedly safe and purely educational context, the most important prophet in Islam has been scrubbed out, cordoned off – deemed too potentially offensive to be depicted.

We’re only talking about English and Art here, yet we know similar redactions are taking place elsewhere across our children’s curriculum. A fortnight ago I wrote about the generation of young people who are no longer being taught about the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict because, again, teachers and schools “are afraid of being accused of bias”.

Indeed, a report into this new form of educational censorship by the Observer revealed that some schools are even now blocking attempts to introduce the subject, despite active interest from pupils, due to the “heat” around the topic and concerns about “bad publicity”.

There’s a fair amount of “heat” around the evils of the British Empire, too. Enough to generate “bad publicity” not just for schools but, arguably, the country, so let’s cross everything pertaining to that off the syllabus and move on not to biology (which even as a word is deemed too contentious), but sex education.

As discussed in last week’s column, an increasing number of schools have quietly decided to ditch the sex education part of… sex education. Too “frightening” for headteachers, apparently, what with all that talk of certain people having wombs and non-gender-neutral pregnancies.

Admittedly, this has triggered a “shocking” increase in sexually transmitted diseases among the young, but it’s a small price to pay for a teacher’s quiet life.

I’m being flippant. Because teachers have it hard enough and many are furious at the current state of affairs. As a secondary school teacher friend rightly pointed out to me yesterday when we discussed the YouGov poll, “we’re in an impossible situation.

“There’s no official guidance as to how to teach some of the more emotive subjects and issues, and hell to pay if we put a step wrong. For some, it’s enough to make them consider a career change.”

I would imagine so. Still more depressing is the likelihood that the braver and better teachers will be the first to give up on a profession they’re effectively being asked to do with their hands tied and with little-to-no backing from above when needed.

In Policy Exchange’s report, only 36 per cent of teachers said they had been issued advice on how to avoid causing offence during lessons, while four in 10 suggested their schools did not have any such guidance.

Given the new sensitivities in so many areas of the curriculum, the think tank is right to call for new guidance that would uphold teachers’ freedom of expression (even if it unintentionally provokes offence) and clarify where the legal boundaries are.

Don’t forget that despite being cleared by an independent investigation, the Batley Grammar School teacher was forced to flee his home with his partner and their four young children and is still in hiding two years later.

Something former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi calls a “national disgrace” in his foreword to Policy Exchange’s report.

“Our teachers – and their pupils – deserve better than this,” he said. “We owe it to them to support them and provide a secure environment where open, honest and free discussion is not only permitted, but actively encouraged.”

That also means leading by example and showing children that out there in the world adults are encouraged to talk, listen and learn just as freely.

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