Thursday, 9 October 2008

Secularism and free speech will be more effective than any "extremism toolkit"

On Wednesday, it was announced that the government has created a "toolkit" to help schools "contribute to the prevention of violent extremism." According to Schools Secretary Ed Balls, the toolkit was drawn up as a response to "feedback from teachers and others" that they need "more practical advice on how to support vulnerable pupils" and will help them to play a "key role" in tackling extremist influences.

Though I detest the word "radicalised," as it implicitly connects radicalism (seeking drastic change at a grassroots level) with extremism, there is a concerted threat of children being groomed by terrorist groups. The story in The Times on the same day as the toolkit was announced that "schoolchildren as young as 13 are being “groomed” for terrorism by Islamic extremists in the heartland of the 7/7 suicide bombers" is an illustration of this. However, one has to wonder if this new measure really presents a serious solution to the problem.

As so often with government policies, particularly education, the entirely wrong conclusion is drawn from what - on the face of it appears to be a largely accurate analysis of the situation. Balls is right that groups grooming children with "extremism and hate- or race-based prejudice" are "causing alienation and disaffection amongst young people" and that in response we need to "empower our young people" through "challenge and debate." Likewise, the assertion by Alan Jones, a headteacher supporting the measure, that "bringing things into the open" and discussing controversial issues freely "improv[es] the safety of all our children" is correct. However, whatever its intent, the toolkit does exactly the opposite, especially when run in tandem with pre-existing government policy.

If we really want an open debate on issues such as this, what we need to foster is a culture of free speech in schools, in much the same way as we need a guarantee of the right to free speech without limits in wider society. However, the heavily structured methodology of the toolkit, "through programmes such as Seal (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) in primary schools and citizenship in secondary schools," with Ofsted inspecting "schools on their duty to promote community cohesion" and a very specific agenda at its heart makes the system far too rigid for truly free speech to prosper. This will serve only to make children feel that the debate is being directed a specific way and to turn them off the principles being promoted.

As well as this, the Government's continued support for faith-based schooling, essentially segregating children based on the religious beliefs of their parents, fundamentally undermines the possibility of any serious dialogue across faith divides.

If we are serious, then, about encouraging "engagement with the community, wider society and politics" and "an ability to discuss controversial issues without resort to polarised rhetoric" amongst our children, one thing is clear. We need to stop trying to fit this goal into a multicultural agenda that seeks to "accommodate different races, religions and ideals" as though they are intrinsically separate or incompatible and deserving of preservation from any external influence at all. We need to allow for a more secular, polycultural society and education system where those of different faiths and cultures are not segregated and balkanised but allowed to interact and to engage in open dialogue where each can have a positive influence on the other and extremist tendencies and irrational doctrines can be challenged without the need for overweaning "respect" and the fear of causing "offence."