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Controversial issues: guidance for schools

2. How should schools respond?

At times of public conflict and controversy, e.g., the war in Iraq, schools will naturally want to respond to the fears and concerns of their pupils. This raises questions like:

  • What sort of response is appropriate?
  • How far should schools go?

To a certain extent, opportunities to respond already exist in the school curriculum. The citizenship curriculum includes teaching on legal and human rights, questions of identity, government, conflict resolution, the significance of the media in society and the role of organisations like the EU and UN. Controversial issues arise in other subjects, too, e.g., the concept of the 'just war' and jihad in RE.

These provide excellent opportunities for pupils to explore current conflicts and controversies in greater depth. They can help pupils to access factual information from a range of sources, and become more aware of the types of argument that characterise alternative viewpoints.

Capitalising on existing curriculum opportunities to address current issues will not always be the answer, however.

For one thing, it means having to adjust schemes of work at short notice, with very little time to locate or develop appropriate teaching resources.

For another, it only applies to certain pupils - those in a particular year or key stage. Also, at times of crisis it may not go far enough to address the emotional needs of the school population. It is important to remember that talk can be cathartic in itself. There will be occasions, therefore, where schools might need to provide opportunities for pupils to express their fears and concerns, e.g., through circle time, assemblies or discussions promoted on a whole school basis.

Some school settings provide greater challenges than others for the discussion of controversial issues - especially, where pupils come from communities that are themselves in conflict, or have family links with parties involved in conflict.

In such cases, schools may be the only forums where pupils are able to encounter a balance of views in a safe environment. Schools need to be able to defend this provision against accusations that they are undermining parental or community views. All positions should be able to be discussed, and it does young people no favours to shield them from views they are likely to encounter in society. Developing the capacity to talk with those of opposing views can be the best way of avoiding situations of conflict from escalating into violence.

Clearly, then, there is a range of responses a school might adopt. What is appropriate is likely to vary from school to school, and from situation to situation. The sort of key questions a school will need to address in determining its approach include:

  • Where does the demand for a response come from? Is it from the pupils themselves?
  • To what extent are pupils, their families or communities, personally involved or affected by an issue?
  • Is the issue something all pupils ought to know about, regardless of whether it is in the curriculum?

3. What can teachers do to avoid unfairly influencing pupils?

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