Teachers must overcome their fear of discussing conflicts in the Middle East with students in order to tackle the radicalisation of young Muslims, an award-winning teacher has said.
Sajeela Shah, the winner of Amnesty International's Inspiring Youth Group Leader Award for 2014, said that confronting difficult issues was the only way to find out what students thought and to challenge their prejudices. Ms Shah, who teaches RE and philosophy at Benton Park School in Leeds, added that many teachers were "scared" to discuss difficult issues.
"We do have concerns about young British Muslims going abroad, and if you don't allow them to have their say in the classroom, you don't know what they're thinking," Ms Shah said. "There are a lot of teachers who are scared to tackle these issues, but it is dangerous not to do it and we're not doing our job properly. These are issues that have to be explored. I feel really strongly about this."
The danger of radicalisation among British Muslims has become a serious concern owing to the conflict in Syria and the growing dominance of militant group Islamic State in parts of Iraq. About 500 Britons are believed to be fighting with Islamic State, although some estimates are considerably higher.
Ms Shah said that many students received much of their information about the Middle East from partisan sources and it was incumbent on teachers to present alternative points of view, whether it was regarding Islamic State or conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. "You could have a Muslim family who are just watching Arabic or Pakistani channels and just hearing about civilians killed in Palestine. And, on the other hand, you could have Jewish children who are just hearing about all the rockets Hamas is firing," she said.
"As a teacher you have to be impartial and lay out the facts as best you can, and be aware that they are dependent on where you get your information from."
Ms Shah said that pupils should have the opportunity to hear arguments on both sides and be allowed to express their views. "I don't think that not talking about it is the right solution," she said. "We need to know what is going on in young people's minds; we need to understand what their misconceptions are.
"If you know there is a student who has a negative view about something, you can't necessarily change their minds but you can give them information. If they're not allowed to express their views, you could cause them to have views that might not necessarily help them to be good citizens of the world."
Amnesty International education officer Alice Edwards said that the conflicts in the Middle East provided teachers with an opportunity to talk about human rights in a context that many students felt passionate about.
"There is a lot of information available to young people that we don't have a chance to edit, and as educators we need to make sure that they're hearing different points of view and different perspectives," she said. "We don't know what children and young people might be coming to the table with, and if they don't have that opportunity to discuss it in school there is a danger of them going down a certain track and not thinking about other perspectives."
Ms Edwards said that the situation in Syria and Iraq made the role of teachers "even more important". She added: "[Islamic State's] appalling human rights record should be a concern to any educator and no one should join an organisation that is implicated in gross human rights violations."
Sajeela Shah won Amnesty International's Inspiring Youth Group Leader Award earlier this year after setting up an Amnesty group in her school. Next year's Amnesty Youth Awards, for which TES is a partner, include prizes for seven- to 19-year-olds in categories such as human rights reporter, fundraiser and songwriter. They are open for entries until 30 January 2015. For details, go to www.amnesty.org.ukyouthawards
For details, go to www.amnesty.org.ukyouthawards