How, if at all, should schools respond to the Manchester atrocity? The slaughter and maiming of teenagers enjoying a pop concert is frightening enough to mature adults. What, if anything, should schools be telling their pupils about terrorism?
A new guide for primary school teachers by Brilliant Publications believes it has the answers. Talking about Terrorism is aimed at children aged 7 to 11. The introduction makes the intentions of the book clear. It is written by the Chief Executive of the NSPCC:
“Terrorism is a difficult and complex issue but it must be confronted head on…[Primary school] Teachers are well placed to have these challenging conversations with young people [7 to 11 year olds].”
To add force to the case for its “head on” approach the book carries a message from the Jo Cox Foundation that concludes:
“Jo really did live by her conviction that we have ‘more in common than that which divides us.’ As this book also shows, it is this phrase that can and should guide conversations with children about extremism in all forms.”
The motivation behind this book is to be applauded. It is very well-intentioned. Sadly, the path to hell was ever paved with good intentions. The ideas and the methods of teaching junior school pupils that the book promotes are at best naïve and at worst dangerous. In the wrong hands or in the hands of a less than skilful teacher it can be used to create rather too much ‘understanding’ of the terrorist. The teaching material can be easily hijacked. It is fraught with potential risks. Neither the NSPCC nor the Jo Cox Foundation should be underwriting it. Young children will be led into dangerous territory and, especially in the hands of an inexperienced or partisan teacher, it is a recipe for trouble.
Understanding and empathy is woven into the explanation of terrorism and this is a short step away from sympathy. Terrorism is described as “ a kind of war, usually started by a weaker group against a much stronger one..” and “terrorists usually think they are victims of aggression, and they are rescuing or defending a community.” It adds that, “We explain terrorism as a social narrative, translated for children…that ‘things aren’t fair’ … We explain that experiences of humiliation and being treated without respect are amongst the strongest grievances…” The publication certainly condemns terrorism but, clearly, it also provides plenty of ‘explanation’ for excusing it.
Furthermore, it strongly urges teachers to ensure young children, “Show respect for people who are different to ourselves”. This admirable rallying cry is at the heart of the “British Values” agenda that has to be taught in schools. At face value this seems self-evidently necessary and commendable. Regrettably, though, it has some sinister and unthought out implications. It can result in a call to respect the point of view of terrorists, too. This is spelt out in a section entitled: “Who are Al-Qaeda and Islamic State?” The book explains that, “TV journalists often call it ‘so-called Islamic State’. They say this because they do not want to show respect…”
In other words, as street language might put it: “That terror thing…It’s all about respect, man! And, in any case, that ISIS ain’t so bad cuz they, like other brothers, is backin the Palestinians.”
Exaggerated, far-fetched and in bad taste? I think not. Talking about Terrorism wants our primary school pupils to understand that:
“Islamic State also considers Israel as an enemy…This is because it has taken over land that they say should belong to Palestinians.
And, in the wake of the educational establishment’s promotion of guilt and self-flagellation over Empire, do we really want our 7 to 11 year-olds to be led further in the direction of national self-hatred by being taught that:
“The leaders of Islamic State think that people living in countries like the US and Western Europe are corrupt – wicked and dishonest.”
The authors and under-writers of Talking about Terrorism put forward some persuasive arguments for teaching pupils to ‘understand’ terrorism but they do not appear to understand into what dangerous territory their approach can lead.