Absolutism: what schools are all about

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Does our obsession with standards and targets actually encourage extremism, asks Adi Bloom
Does our obsession with standards and targets actually encourage extremism, asks Adi Bloom

Education has traditionally been seen as the enemy of religious fundamentalism. But English schools' drive for academic excellence, their focus on multiculturalism, and their emphasis on punishment for misdemeanours all encourage religious extremism in pupils, according to Lynn Davies, professor of education at Birmingham University.

Thus, if the Government wants to address fundamentalism among school pupils, as it announced last week, it needs to examine the very nature of the education system.

Professor Davies has studied extremism and education, visiting schools in Britain, Serbia and Sri Lanka. She found that the two driving forces of extremism are absolutism - the belief in black-and-white certainties - and the search for perfection. But, she said, both these are encouraged rather than challenged by the English education system. English schools reduce children to simple, black-and-white definitions: success or failure.

"The current obsession with excellence and standards may actually be conducive to extremism," Professor Davies says. "The testing regime in schools at best does not create secure identities and at worst creates a lifetime of anxieties."

The Government has recommended bringing visitors into schools and discussing topics such as the teachings of the Koran in a multicultural context. However, Professor Davies says, schools' well-meaning attempts to promote multiculturalism often heightened the sense of absolutism. It was more constructive to consider the many different facets of a person's identity - that, for example, one could be simultaneously female, music-loving and broccoli-hating - rather than giving too much weight to over-arching identities, such as being Muslim or Serbian. "Extremism is often about some call for an imagined purity," she says.

She would therefore like to see schools spend less time focusing on different pupils' single-definition identities and avoid pushing "children into camps by getting other children to learn about Asian food or visits to the Sikh temple".

"The trick is to enhance the resistance to such simple labels and categorisations and give children status by showing how original and special each of us is," she says.

Similarly, schools should not condone unquestioning respect of other religions and traditions in the name of multiculturalism. Instead, children should be encouraged to think critically.

"The beliefs and attitudes that people have can be condoned," says Professor Davies.

"But behaviours done in the name of these beliefs cannot be respected just because they have a cultural or religious root."

In fact, she believes faith schools, with their religious value base, only heighten division. The exhortation to extremism, she points out, is always much more powerful if done in the name of a supernatural being: "It is true that schools need a strong value base, but this does not have to be a religious one."

Extremist violence is also linked closely to ideas of revenge and retribution. Many Islamic fundamentalists, for example, claim to wreak punishment on the heretic West. Similarly, Christian fundamentalists attack homosexuals in the name of divine retribution. But, Professor Davies says, the school system encourages this way of thinking, awarding punishments for transgressive behaviour.

"A core problem is that schools condone and use revenge in their punishment regimes," she said. She advocates alternative forms of discipline, such as restorative justice, in which offenders express remorse and make amends to the victim.

- 'Educating Against Extremism' by Lynn Davies, is published by Trentham Books


Professor Davies of Birmingham University says teachers should provide pupils with:

- a sound understanding of universal rights and responsibilities;

- skills of advocacy, lobbying and negotiation - how to make change through legal and political processes;

- a political education, including conflict studies, comparative religion and non-nationalistic citizenship;

- understanding that ideals are provisional, should be contested, and can be mocked;

- the skills to weigh up the value of contrasting ideals;

- a critical media education, analysing spin and propaganda, and recognising the importance of investigative journalism and freedom of speech.

She also recommends that schools:

- understand that political and media literacy are a vital part of language learning;

- encourage school councils and pupil organisations, so that pupils feel that they have the power to implement change;

- introduce restorative justice wherever possible, in place of traditional punishment;

- encourage professional development courses that help teachers deal with controversial issues and generate debate and analysis among pupils;

- remember that the enemy of extremism is a lightness of touch.


What the researcher says

The answer to this question is yes - but an innovative, coherent and critical focus in schools would be urgently needed.

Schools could play a role in protecting young people from being drawn into extremist or violent movements and inuring them against the unthinking hatred which characterises such groups.

However, the culture and "mission" of many schools means the opposite is true, and that they provide little or no protection - indeed fostering blind belief in certainties and single truths.

It appears a puzzle that terrorists and suicide bombers are often highly educated, sometimes in caring professions such as medicine. How is it that our complex modern education system appears to provide no safeguards against the acceptance of violence and harm?

Professor Lynn Davies of Birmingham University

What the Government says

Schools can play an important role in helping young people become more resilient to the messages of violent extremists, and in tackling the sorts of grievances extremists seek to exploit, through creating an environment where all young people learn to understand others, value and appreciate diversity and develop skills to debate and analyse.

Through the curriculum, schools can help young people explore the values shared by different faiths and cultures, the historical context and issues around citizenship, identity and current affairs.

Young people see school as a safe place where they can explore controversial issues, and teachers can encourage and facilitate this.

If schools have concerns that a pupil may be exposed to extremist material or influences, they can offer support through mentoring and by ensuring that the school is involved in the local partnership structures working on preventing violent extremism.

Prevent strategy 2008: http:security.homeoffice.gov.uknews-publicationspublication-searchprevent-strategy.

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