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4 June, 2015

Teachers concerned about exploring controversial issues in class

This morning, the BBC reported that schools are being offered new software that 'helps teachers spy on pupils' potentially extremist online activity'. Are such developments scaring teachers into avoiding tricky subjects?

In her article, journalist Hannah Richardson tells us how the software alerts teachers when pupils use certain terms or phrases or if they visit extremist websites on school equipment. Schools are encouraged to report any suspicious patterns of behaviour that they think they uncover.

This comes hot on the heels of the now notorious extremism questionnaires for primary school children, and is another consequence of the Government's new requirement for teachers to prevent potential terrorism as part of its Prevent Strategy.

The software designers say it's vital that schools put measures in place to prevent pupils coming to harm online.

However, the National Union of Teachers is concerned that such seemingly divisive approaches could threaten important, healthy debate in schools.

Its recent Annual Conference agreed that schools should be places 'where young people can discuss events in a spirit of enquiry and openness and that teachers are well placed to facilitate such discussions and deal with the expression of unacceptable viewpoints', but that 'many teachers may feel uncertain about engaging in such discussions with students’.

The Conference heard of one student who was too scared of admitting that he found the Charlie Hebdo cartoon offensive.

If this is the prevailing situation in schools then we share NUT's concerns. We don't want to return to the time of Clause 28 when children were left with little practical support or help with understanding their world simply because teachers were too afraid of the consequences of discussing thorny issues.

The same was true with law in the 1980s: students were leaving school with little or no understanding of how the justice system affected them because teachers were scared of being partisan. We intervened with our Law in Education Project and now, thankfully, public legal education is much more widespread in UK schools.

Yes, some topics can be very difficult to address and no teacher should be criticised for steering clear of them.

However, there are techniques to help those that would like to explore some controversial issues in class but are wary of doing so.

A few years ago we produced guidance for schools on dealing with the British National Party and other radical groups and, earlier, on teaching controversial issues. Although some of the references are of their time, the general principles still hold.

And, today, we published Talking about values in the classroom, which introduces teachers to a method of working that develops students' skills of thinking and talking about moral issues.

It's a difficult time for teachers in this regard. Let's be careful it doesn't become impossible for them.

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