Ethics 101

27th April 2012 at 01:00

Last week, I set a new English controlled assessment task for my Year 11s. Since my class greet the arrival of each new piece of extended writing with the same enthusiasm as they would canine excrement on their shoes, I'm not surprised when they attempt the usual avoidance tactics such as "My nana died last night" and the rhetorically less effective "I haven't got a pen".

When I reveal that the task is a rant, and that they can bang on about whatever makes them mad, their mood changes from despair to glee. "Can we really write about anything?" asks Dean incredulously, betraying the fact that, for the past two years, my English lessons have not progressed beyond water-boarding him with "ing" clauses and apostrophes to show possession.

"That's what it says here," I reply, carefully scrutinising the controlled assessment rubric. "It's called, 'Don't get me started on...' and then it's up to you." I look around the room. Instead of groaning and rolling their eyes, they look like they are waiting for a round of Jagerbombs and a chaser of chips.

They work happily in groups, discussing possible topics. I should have realised there was trouble when a lad who never writes more than five consecutive words unaided began scribbling away like a seasoned hack. I soon discover why. His group's planning sheet is crammed with good ideas, but there among the usual subjects - school dinners, school buses, make-up and the like - the words "immigrants" and "trannies" stand painfully out of place. He isn't my only concern. Alice, with the spray tan and tattooed eyebrows, wants to rant about lesbians. Apparently, the sight of women holding hands makes her "want to whitey". With bigotry like this around, it's no wonder that teachers keep their sexuality under wraps. I wonder how long Alice could keep her breakfast down if I revealed that I had spent my student days drinking pints of Guinness.

It becomes clear that I have released a Pandora's box of prejudices into the room. Bigotries splatter out of the pupils like a dose of diarrhoea. They are not bad children, but they are spouting dangerous views. It's obvious that they have inherited their parents' superannuated opinions, which - thankfully - they don't yet fully own. I try to do some damage limitation and whittle their list of topics down to three: mobile phones, uniform or university fees.

Their enthusiasm wilts like cut tulips. It's like I have taken them to a cake shop and said "eat what you want", then added the proviso "as long as it's made with wholemeal flour". I try explaining that ranting about teachers or homework is different from launching a pejorative attack on someone's culture, sexuality or race, but they struggle to comprehend the difference.

They keep on asking, "How come it's OK to rant about school dinners but not about fat kids?" They are not being awkward; they just can't recognise that there is an ethical difference.

We need to do more to root out prejudice and help children to mature into compassionate human beings. But following landslide changes to education, schools are too busy making supermarket dashes for the latest Inset training and chucking respect and tolerance in the bin. This bodes ill for the future. As does our new mantra: "We must know targets and levels to thrive." I preferred the old W.H. Auden version: "We must love one another or die."

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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