Conflict yet to be resolved

11th April 2003 at 01:00
Respect, tolerance and non-violence are hard to teach in the face of examples set by Bush and Blair, says Kenny Frederick

As headteacher of a large inner-London comprehensive with pupils from several different cultural backgrounds, many of them Muslims, I am always striving to instil values of tolerance, equality and respect.

It is not helpful, therefore, when our Government decides to ignore the rule of law and attempts to resolve conflicts through war and violence, rather than negotiation. How are we supposed to teach our children not to use violence and not to bully when our political leaders are actively promoting the complete reverse of this?

I asked this question of the Education Secretary Charles Clarke at the recent Secondary Heads Association conference in Birmingham. I was not surprised when he insisted the Government (of which he is a member) was doing the right thing in going to war with Iraq.

I have been headteacher of my present school in east London for seven years. It is a job I love and it is one I am good at. My driving force is my vision, based on the values of respect, tolerance and non-violence.

Our equal opportunities and inclusion policy is the framework for all our work. We challenge racism and bullying and do all in our power to create an environment where pupils can learn and teachers can teach.

We will not allow pupils to show disrespect for each other or for staff. We teach our pupils to resolve conflict by talking to each other. We have a variety of personnel (including pupils) who are trained to mediate and intervene when there is conflict.

So how can I as the leader of this school say to these pupils: "It is wrong to fight and to bully - unless you are the Government"? We work hard to make sure our pupils know and obey the laws of this country and act as respectable citizens. We are part of the Safer Schools Partnership and work very closely with our designated police officer to ensure crimes are reported and followed up and that justice is seen to be done.

We will soon be piloting an experiment in "restorative justice" and we want to ensure we use all the resources available to make the community safer for all.

All this work is at risk of being undermined by a war, the fall-out from which we will be dealing with for many months to come. The events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war in Afghanistan have already led to a great deal of conflict in the past 18 months. As a school we agreed we had to face the issues head-on, and to express our views clearly and calmly, rather than ignore them and pretend nothing was happening.

As the war became more imminent we agreed staff would not walk out in protest, that pupils would be strongly encouraged not to do so and that we would have an assembly on the day war was declared to explain the situation, to reassure the children, and to make the statement that we wanted peace not war.

Pupils were encouraged to make up their own minds but only to do so after gathering the facts from a variety of sources. They were enabled and encouraged to have discussions about the war in a safe and respectful environment. All were warned not to bring the war into our school and that racism and Islamophobia (we explained this) would not be tolerated.

Discussion groups were set up to allow those who were pro-war to have a voice. Our school is well-known for its work on citizenship and we are proud to be able to give our young people a voice. This is one part of the national curriculum which is helping pupils to reach decisions and to question politicians and community leaders.

With millions of people in this country, in Europe and all around the world against this war, which is being fought in our name, what does this teach our children about the principles of democracy and the consent of the majority? Citizenship may yet prove to be a thorn in the side of the present Government.

Kenny Frederick is principal of George Green's school on the Isle of Dogs in east London

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