Teachers afraid to broach human rights in class

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Fear of causing upset means they steer clear of controversial topic, research finds

Scottish teachers are too scared of upsetting parents to teach human rights, worrying new research has found.

Student teachers said they feared that "all hell would break loose" if they taught pupils about emotive human rights issues.

Meanwhile, students who did want to cover human rights during their teaching practice were actively discouraged by qualified teachers who were concerned that it was "controversial".

Researchers at the University of Strathclyde said the findings raised concerns about how human rights education - a fundamental right in itself - was being delivered in Scotland under Curriculum for Excellence.

Lead researcher Claire Cassidy told delegates at the annual Scottish Educational Research Association conference: "Children generally learn about human rights through teachers - but teachers are afraid of human rights education.

"They are worried about parents' reaction. Students talked at length about how there would be `all hell breaking loose' if they even broached human rights.

"They are also worried about it being a sensitive topic and about how to pitch it, but that seemed to come down more to a lack of understanding of human rights and fears of teaching a subject they do not know."

The students had "all sorts of bogeymen in their heads", but this really was not borne out by reality, Dr Cassidy added.

"They thought of parents' cultural, religious and moral positions as barriers to education, but they did not at any point consider that they could challenge parents' views," she said.

Of perhaps even greater concern was the attitude of experienced teachers who revealed similar fears.

Dr Cassidy said: "One student wanted to do a human rights topic, but the teacher said, `No, we think that's too dodgy.' So the student did a lesson on space instead.

"A fourth-year B.Ed student who brought a Holocaust survivor into class was told afterwards by the teacher that the lesson was `controversial'."

The study was based on an online survey and interviews involving 133 students at an unidentified Scottish university doing B.Ed, PGDE and BA Early Childhood Practice (BAECP) qualifications.

Researchers also found that human rights education was not covered explicitly in teacher training, despite a current UN draft declaration on human rights education and training.

Dr Cassidy said: "Our students don't actually know that there is a huge programme on human rights education, and I'm sure our colleges don't know either. We need to help students to see the links between human rights education and CfE."

However, one researcher at the SERA conference last year stressed the difficulties of teaching human rights in schools where pupils were directly affected by the issues in question.

The professor, who did not want to be named, referred to a large school in Glasgow where it was believed that female Pakistani pupils "disappeared" to take part in forced marriages, but the issue was never discussed because the girls' parents gave the Scottish schools system "a complete body-swerve".

A spokesman for Moray House school of education at the University of Edinburgh said several teacher-training courses referred to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was "implicitly touched upon" in relation to classroom equality issues.

But he added: "There are no specific modules, courses or electives on human rights within teacher training at Moray House."

The findings are being used to help develop a continuing professional development opportunity at the University of Strathclyde in a bid to improve teaching of human rights.


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