After the Batley Grammar School row, which led to protests outside the school, teachers being suspended, and one going into hiding for his own safety, the teachers have been reinstated.
On 27 May an independent investigation commissioned by Batley Multi Academy Trust found that teaching staff at Batley Grammar School who had shown one of the Charlie Hebdo images of Mohammed “genuinely believed that using the image had an educational purpose and benefit, and that it was not used with the intention of causing offence. The image was included to initiate a discussion about the meaning of ‘blasphemy’.” The teachers involved have been allowed to return to their work. That is good.
However, the investigation also found: “… in respect of the views of our school community the Trust is clear that it is not necessary for staff to use the material in question to deliver the learning outcomes on the subject of blasphemy; or any such images of the type used.” This sets a very dangerous precedent. The Humanist Society, correctly, observed it is a de facto re-imposition of blasphemy laws in schools.
The laws were repealed 13 years ago. Most schools will surely follow the Trust’s view. Teachers and educators will be further intimidated into self-censorship. The ability to develop critical thinking in our young people is being endangered and curtailed by the religious right.
The National Education Union (NEU), who represented the Batley teachers, has been weak. A legitimate concern for the well-being of the teachers involved and not wanting to inflame tensions around the school led them to make no clear statement on the principles involved. Indeed, many in the union’s leadership agree with the practical conclusions of the investigation.
The labour movement must rally to defend free speech and not allow our schools, the curriculum they teach, and the way it is taught, to be dictated by the religious right. An inspiring example of this has come from Bury Unite commercial branch who have moved a motion to the National Conference of Trade Councils calling for the NEU and other unions to condemn the threats to the teacher and criticise the attempts to control the curriculum. A spokesman said “We are affiliated to the Orwell Society and freedom of expression is very important. I don’t feel guilty in any way for taking a stand on this issue.”