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The Curriculum’s Mightier than the Sword

Three school girls on CCTV at Gatwick Airport

The Curriculum’s Mightier than the Sword

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Claire BoldersonIn this guest post, updated from its original form as published in June 2014, Claire Bolderson explores the relationship between the government’s Prevent strategy and issues around RE in schools. Claire is a  news journalist and documentary maker for the BBC and is also a school governor. You can read her blog at and listen to her latest report for the World Service from the 26th of February.

When it comes to preventing extremist or radical influences in schools, the government doesn’t have a lesson plan.

Despite Michael Gove’s centralising tendencies, as Secretary of State for Education he never laid out what exactly schools are supposed to do to stop the – real or imagined – Islamic extremist threat.

Nor have any politicians clearly identified where this threat is supposed to come from, who is vulnerable, nor how serious the problem really is.

No wonder those beleaguered Birmingham schools ended up in such a mess. (There’s a separate and serious issue of governance in the Birmingham schools. But I’m focusing here on the Ofsted Chief’s conclusion that “in several schools inspected, children are being badly prepared for life in modern Britain.”)

And no wonder that neither the parents of, nor the school attended by three teenage girls thought to be headed to Syria had any idea those children had been radicalised and planned to join Islamic State.

Three school girls on CCTV at Gatwick Airport

Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana, and Amira Abase at Gatwick Airport (Photograph: Met Police)

So where should schools turn for help?

Well, there’s the often referred to Prevent Strategy of course, with its 43 jumbled paragraphs on education that skip from maintained, to free, to faith schools. Whatever the institution, it points out, a satisfactory education must be provided, and a “broad and balanced curriculum” must be taught.

But then, after a swerve into discussing the role of the Charity Commission in monitoring independent schools, it switches to extremism as a safeguarding issue. “Protecting children from harm and promoting their welfare depends on a shared responsibility and effective joint working between different agencies,” it says.

Well, yes. But how exactly? Should teachers and governors report a child with extremist views to social services as they would if they thought that child was being abused? Which views exactly would trigger the intervention? And what if those views were shared by some of the staff?

Maybe the Association of Chief Police Officers can help. Their guidance, Prevent, Police and Schools, at least has the advantage of a bobby’s blunt clarity. “Prevent is about stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism,” it says.

But then it adds, “The purpose of Prevent in schools must be to protect children from harm,” (hold on, we’re stopping terrorists by protecting potential terrorists from themselves?) “and ensure that they are taught in a way that is consistent with the law and British values.” Ah. British values. Good luck with defining those (ACPO doesn’t try).

Good luck also with the paragraph on “resilience building teaching activities,” involving such impenetrable tasks as “making a connection through good design and a young person centred approach.” No, I’m none the wiser.

Let’s take a look then at the DfE’s “toolkit” which, like ACPO’s document is cited in the Prevent Strategy. Here, at last with curriculum advice and promoting human rights, we get a bit of practical help for schools and a hint of what the real issue is.

As the Chief Constable of the West Midlands, Chris Sims said when the government appointed a former counter terrorism police officer to investigate the Birmingham schools, “It’s an issue about cohesion and the way social cohesion plays out into schools, but it certainly isn’t … an issue about counter-terrorism,”

He’s absolutely right and if we want to address social cohesion, we don’t need Prevent.  

As Ofsted itself makes clear, what we need is a healthy dose of RE.

Religious Education - School Room by Dennis Jarvis. Used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

DSC00355 – School Room by Dennis Jarvis. Used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

In late 2013, the schools inspectorate published a highly critical report on the quality of Religious Education teaching. If taught properly, the report stated, Religious Education “plays a key role in promoting social cohesion and the virtues of respect and empathy, which are important in our diverse society”.

But Ofsted concluded that RE wasn’t up to scratch in more than half of schools. It went further, charging that “teaching often fails to challenge and extend pupils’ ability to explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief”.

That’s hardly surprising. There’s no National Curriculum for RE. Content is supposed to be determined by local authority Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education. But cuts in council funding mean they rarely meet. There are far too few specialist RE teachers and – again thanks to the cuts – training has been scaled back. No wonder Ofsted found, “Teachers were unwilling to open up enquiry in case pupils asked challenging or controversial questions with which they felt ill-equipped to deal.”

And that’s when it’s taught at all. In theory, RE is compulsory but about a third of non-faith schools don’t offer the subject for GCSE. It isn’t one of the core subjects in the English Baccalaureate.

As a cross-party committee of MPs put it, RE is being “marginalised” in schools “just as it is needed most.”

Because it is needed. A strong national curriculum that explores and explains a mix of religions to children who have little or no exposure to other faiths elsewhere would be a start.

Then we should equip specialist teachers to challenge offensive or radical interpretations – of any religion.

We shouldn’t be protecting children from extremism. We should be exposing them to it, talking to them about it, explaining it and using specialist knowledge to help them discover why it’s wrong.

A well planned, compulsory and – crucially – well taught Religious Education curriculum would be a start.

Questions for governing bodies
  • Are you familiar with your school’s approach to religious education, not just its content, but also the reasons why your school takes this approach?
  • Does your school consider the issues around Prevent to be ones of safeguarding?
  • If Ofsted were to focus on British values in an inspection, what might they focus on in your school?
  • (How) does your school communicate with its broader community (parents, children, other schools) about issues raised by religious education, the Prevent agenda and radicalisation?
  • How can your governing body strategically support staff to develop a coherent approach to religious education which both enriches the life of the school and addresses the challenges offered by radicalisation?
  • What might strategic leadership from governors look like, assuming it doesn’t involve governors in the day-to-day detail of what is taught and how this is delivered?

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