A new academic year! An exciting time ripe with possibilities and promise. It is vital that schools get these all important first days in our education systems right, to ensure (without exception) that our diverse young people feel welcomed, included, represented and inspired to learn.
In 2010 I devised a whole school topic, called 'Our Heritage', to launch the school year within the primary school I worked in. This afforded the whole school community a rich opportunity to explore their authentic identities. All subjects were taught via the topic, from nursery to year six. During the first phase of the topic pupils gathered, presented and disseminated information about their unique lives, values, beliefs (whether faith based or non-faith based) heritage and how they perceived their own personality, having been prepped to do so prior to the summer break. The resulting podcasts, displays, autobiographies, family trees, geography, cultural, historical and faith studies empowered our young people with a keen sense of pride in their authentic identity, not only enabling them to more confidently learn and socialise, but also to resist some of the increasingly dangerous forces that seek to embroil some of our more vulnerable young people into substance abuse, gang lives or terrorism.
Pupils then reflected upon their own identities and contrasted them with stories sufficiently different to their own. Teachers then followed up with structured discussions (with a clear emphasis upon respect for the feelings of others) to explore individual and group responses to similarities and differences, exploring their influences upon human responses and behaviours, both positively and negatively. Staff and parents were involved too and gradually became more confident in externalising and processing their own fears, misconceptions and prejudices, safe in the knowledge that these were being gently but gradually revealed in order for us to work through them, not to shame. That said, the Equality Act 2010 and Rights of the Child provided useful guidance in terms of Human Rights expectations and violations. Clear definitions of what constitutes a Hate Crime in the UK where also shared and discussed.
Work generated by the pupils was displayed and then revisited throughout the school year, within subjects, assemblies and annual celebrations like Black/LGBT History Months and Anti-Bullying Week. Over time Our Heritage enabled our whole school community to gain a profound sense of what lies at the very core of prejudice itself. Even as children departed at the end of year six, they were still able to identify when and why prejudices arose within themselves and usually make positive behavioural changes. Year on year we watched as the impact and coverage of Our Heritage deepened, alongside our own understanding of our whole school community and the world beyond; was in fact, joyous to behold.
How potentially life changing could it be to set our young people on this journey of self-awareness at the earliest possible opportunity, in order to reduce fear of difference and the resulting suffering? Mindfulness in schools is one route into earlier, more profound self-awareness and I am thrilled to see more schools taking up the option. Strategies such as philosophy for children, human rights education and texts about refugees and diverse families make discussions on the basic roots of prejudice accessible right down to Nursery level. Fears about difference can be externalised, valued, explored and rationalised. In my first year six class pupils would often express fear along the lines of 'all gay people have AIDS' or 'gay people make more even gay people by abusing children'. More recently I witnessed year one children externalising their fears that all men with long beards are terrorists. If these kind of fears are not rationalised, we leave ourselves open to serious trouble ahead. Right now it seems the human race has more than enough problems as it is. Let us not forget that bullying behaviours can result in depression, self harm or suicide and that prejudice can and does result in murder.
'Are our politicians supposed to be role models?' a 10-year-old recently asked me, before adding 'I don't think they don't act like role models'. Divisive political rhetoric easily slips from screens into families into our playgrounds, empowering some young people to become more confident in attacking certain groups and individuals. History shows us with sobering clarity that increased confidence often precedes escalation. We simply can not afford to be complacent, nor must we forget that hard won rights given, can be also swiftly taken away.
Consider the considerable amount of learning time education professionals spend dealing with incidents of bullying, hate crime and non-attendance arising from prejudice. I've spent countless hours dealing with verbal and physical conflict rooted in fear of difference. In some cases this was triggered by children repeating the views of their parents who harbour prejudices of their own; there was a notable upswing in these kind of incidents as far back as the 2015 UK election where I witnessed UKIP anti-foreigner rhetoric increasingly cascading from parent to child to playground. Prejudicial views left unchallenged within the education system could ultimately lead to involvement in hate groups and hate crimes by young people who deserve better.
Understanding fear of difference sits at the core of my own 'Inclusion For All' work tackling LGBT+ and identity based prejudice. I support and allow people to undertake their own journey towards recognising, accepting and rationalising and finally addressing their own prejudices; this is a very personal journey and it is often unsupported by any meaningful deep learning undertaken during years of formal education, a situation that needs to change urgently, before more lives are lost to hate.
Education about difference, compassion and prejudice should be a fundamental part of all our education systems from day one, only then can we dream of a future in which humanity might just stand together to face the huge challenges to our existence that lie ahead. During recent months, I have heard from friends who were attacked in broad daylight merely because of their skin tone or their accents. Other friends have been attacked in the street for being gay and I have directly witnessed racism from members of one community of colour towards another. This Summer I have consoled victims running directly from a terror attack in our own city, something I hope never to have to do again. Yes schools are busy places and the curriculum is packed, but this work isn't 'airy fairy' or a bolt on- this work is now more vital than ever, so please, get back to school and let's make our schools, our race and this world a more inclusive and compassionate place.