A teacher in Batley, West Yorkshire has been suspended for showing an ‘inappropriate’ image of the Prophet Mohammed to his pupils in a religious studies lesson. The head teacher has issued an "unequivocal apology” (as has the teacher himself) but protesters have demanded the teacher's sacking, while some parents (who spoke to the BBC) said they didn't agree with the protests and found them "intimidating".
As we haven’t seen the image – nor are we likely to - it’s difficult to know whether we would find it ‘inappropriate’; though I accept that for many Muslims, any image of the Prophet will be considered offensive and unacceptable.
The issues related to this case are so many and so complex that we can’t deal with them all in a short article like this, so I merely pose a few of points that I hope will provoke some thought and response.
I am going to take it on trust – at least at this stage - that the teacher was doing his job ethically in trying to teach religious studies to the best of his ability and not trying to be deliberately offensive and provocative. There are some reports that both the headteacher, governors and parents had been consulted prior to the lesson. However, I think that any reasonably knowledgeable RS teacher, let alone a sensitive and considerate one, would have anticipated that there were going to be at least a minority of students and their parents who would potentially find any image of the Prophet problematic and would have contacted them well before the lesson to consult or warn them of its intended use.
Nevertheless, let’s assume the teacher was being honest in his intentions and teaching to ethical standards and not deliberately trying to offend.
In that case, teachers must feel free and be able to present material that some may find offensive, even deeply.
· A PHSE teacher must feel free and able to teach with visual material which reveals the truth about the human body and human sexual relationships - where the human form is seen completely naked where necessary and in age-appropriate ways – even though some students and parents will be offended or reject its truth;
· A history teacher must feel free and able to teach with visual material which reveals the truth about for example, the Holocaust or the Atlantic slave trade – even where that includes scenes of human cruelty, brutality and barbarity – even though some students and parents will be upset, horrified or reject its truth;
· A science teacher must feel free and able to teach with visual material that reveals the truth about for example, the nature of DNA, Darwinian evolution or the nature of the COVID-19 disease – even though some students and parents will refuse to believe it and reject its its truth.
What is the ethical justification for doing this? That’s easy…
Teachers are – or should be - trying to fulfil the basic ethical tenet of education itself - which is to seek the truth.
If they are doing so honestly and in good faith, they will unavoidably offend some people on occasion. They should not fear this. Indeed, they would be cowards if they did not confront that fear.
We should not think that giving offence is to be avoided at all costs. We should not think that offending people, even deeply religious people, is an expression of intolerance. It’s not.
We should not think that offending people, even deeply religious people, is an expression of disrespect. It’s not.
We should not think that we must respect ideas. We don’t – not even religious ideas or even whole religions. Ideas are there to be challenged and tested for their truth.
But we must respect people, including people who don’t believe what we might. That is a fundamental value, one that teachers must model and demonstrate at every opportunity.
If a teacher is motivated by the desire to educate ethically - by seeking the truth that lies at the heart of his or her subject – then they must be free and able to do it and not feel constrained by the fear of causing offence or the fear of intimidation.
If on the other hand, a teacher uses his or her elevated and privileged position to peddle their ideological preferences by deliberately attempting to indoctrinate, provoke, offend, insult or incite – they don’t deserve to be called a teacher.
The title teacher is not a protected title in this country - though in many it is - reflecting the elevated and rarified nature of those who perform that practice. Which is also why some cultures call being a teacher a rabbi, a guru or a professor.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and head teacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures and writes on professional values in teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.
His new book: ‘Becoming a teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ will be published by Crown House Publishing this summer and can be ordered here.
You may also be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’– which deals with issues of free speech, respect and tolerance. It comprises a 3-module course that covers professional ethics and values, with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self-assessment exercises and completion certificates – ideal for showing evidence that you have completed cpd on ‘wider professional responsibilities’. For individual students and trainee teachers it costs £15.