Promoting competition and division between students and schools is no way to nurture tolerance and support, argues Vic Goddard…
I don’t know about you but I have had enough of the politically driven focus on ‘British values’ and especially on the attempts to measure how effective we are at developing them. Please don’t get me wrong, it is not that I don’t agree with the notion of a values driven education process; I just feel insulted that anyone sitting at the DfE would think that we don’t do all that we can to develop our young people into the adults that our communities want and need without the need of their focus. I would go further and say that some of the systems imposed on schools from above actually work contrary to positive ‘character’ development.
We currently have a government that believes in increasing competition as a method of raising standards; how does this help tolerance and inclusivity in our schools? With more and more schools feeling the strain of falling budgets and increased competition for fewer young people - due in some cases to the unstructured expansion of schools via the UTC/ free school route - I see colleagues being placed under increasing pressure to move up the league table at the expense of supporting the most vulnerable and in need young people.
Passmores has more than double the national average of young people with a recognised special educational need and I am really proud of our inclusive reputation. However I have visited a few schools where inclusion actually feels and looks like exclusion for the young people; with the support area (learning support unit for want of a better name) hidden in a dark corner or basement. I have heard the arguments that this means that the young people in need of support do not feel like they are ‘on show’ but think that we are missing the point somewhat. There should be no stigma attached to needing support after all.
Having a range of strengths and needs is what makes our communities interesting; wouldn’t life be dull if this was not the case? I can see how much the interaction between our young people with additional needs, such as autism, and those without, helps everyone grow. The tolerance and empathy that naturally grow when the ethos in which these relationships develop embraces and celebrates those differences, are quite simply two of the most important values that we should wish for all of our society.
It saddens me when I hear of colleagues in other schools using the inclusive approach of a local ‘rival’ as a means of recruiting new students to their school or putting off others: ‘School X has all the students with additional needs so we can concentrate on the most academic young people’. This reaction, because of the challenges of keeping the school full, does no one any favours. What does it truly say about that individual school? ‘As long as you don’t have any need for support or help you will do fine here.’ Let’s be honest, everyone needs some support sometimes.
So how do we help our young people to have a view of the world that is inclusive and tolerant when we often see a ‘zero-tolerance’ system in schools being praised (normally in the Daily Mail of course!)? I think there is a clear distinction beteen what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and do not for one second state that we should tolerate behaviour that is offensive or detrimental to the rights of others. Similarly, I would defend our right of free speech to the hilt, without having to agree with the content of what someone says - the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy being a case in point.
It is almost twenty years since the members of UNESCO passed the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance and stated that “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” At the time that the Declaration was agreed the importance of education was seen as critical in the world – “Education for tolerance should be considered an urgent imperative; that is why it is necessary to promote systematic and rational tolerance teaching methods that will address the cultural, social, economic, political and religious sources of intolerance - major roots of violence and exclusion.”
I think this view is even more relevant now than it was back in 1995, especially in light of the recent shift in our political system with the increased popularity of UKIP. It is imperative that we all think about the messages we send to our young people. In the same way that tolerance can be taught through structured learning opportunities and an inclusive ethos, so can intolerance. Unfortunately it seems that intolerance grows much more readily in the shadows of ignorance - without much help from anything other than fear of the unknown.
Over the next few weeks of rampant electioneering I hope that we educate our young people to not accept what they are reading or hearing from politicians desperate to paint themselves as ‘more British’ than their opponents on face value. The simplest and best way to do this is to make sure that our organisations are the living embodiment of the society that we wish to live in. We must help our young people to develop capacities for independent judgement, critical thinking and ethical reasoning, to ensure that we don’t have a generation of people driven to vote through the fear of others.