A teacher is in hiding for his own safety, away from his family home, due to showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad that was a routine part of the school’s Year 9 Religious Education curriculum that discussed blasphemy (the mainstream interpretation within Islam is that it is forbidden to depict the Prophet). The resulting protest of intimidation outside the school gates and demands for the teacher to be sacked, forced the school to shut down and the teacher to flee. Consider the significance of those two sentences. This describes not the theocracy of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Iran, but Yorkshire in 2021.
Consider too the options available to the Headteacher of Batley Grammar School, Mr Gibbin, when this issue landed on his desk. The first option was to unequivocally stand by his teacher, referencing basic liberal democratic values around freedom of thought, a secular education system, and the legitimate function and indeed the responsibility of a school to provide perspectives and experiences to its students that are different to those exposed to them in the home.
The second option was to call for further investigation into the matter and to hold back casting judgement until this process was done. It might well have been concluded that the content of the cartoon was so provocative — which is a given since it came from the magazine Charlie Hebdo — and the way it was introduced done insufficiently carefully (even though the teacher apparently warned the class before showing the image), that it was indeed inappropriate for a Year 9 class. Such measured pause might be out of fashion in a contemporary culture where the more rapid, certain, and louder the moralising judgment, the greater the hearing. It might have delayed the gratification of those calling for the teacher to be sacked or to indeed permanently barred from being a teacher. But perhaps this second option was the least this seemingly popular and dedicated teacher deserved, before his career was potentially sacrificed on the altar of appeasement.
Mr Gibbin went for a third option. In a statement, he said the school “unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate image in a recent religious studies lesson.” If it was so inappropriate, why was it not cut out sooner, if, as a parent alleges, other teachers use it, and it had been used in lessons for years? And if other teachers use it, why is only this one teacher taking the fall? Mr Gibbin called for “an independent formal investigation” into the matter and said how he was “deeply sorry”. So what is the point of the investigation then, if both the teacher and the use of the cartoon have already been condemned?
The RE teacher has been thrown under the bus by his headteacher, in a type of incident which is increasingly common in contemporary society: in the face of public scolding, capitulate and abandon someone to pariah status so as to move the conversation on, rather than drag the incident out. A group that claim to be the teacher’s students have generated a petition calling for his reinstatement. But what of fellow teachers or professional bodies standing by the teacher? I do not know if the teacher is part of a union, but I have seen no teaching union or spokesperson defend the teacher. No engagement from the newly founded Chartered of College of Teaching, which purports to be the professional body of teachers. No defence from a fellow educator is offered up on the Times Education Supplement, who do not even mention this story. Nor has there been much support or even comment from teachers on Twitter.
Why the silence? If a History teacher had shown an interpretation of Churchill’s shameful role in the Bengal famine, as part of a school’s response to broaden its curriculum, and extreme nationalists had rocked up at the school gates demanding the teacher be sacked for showing a lack of patriotism, I expect there would be no shortage of teachers defending the teacher. And rightly so. But this would be easy. It would require no risk.
It is more difficult when it is hard, on a sensitive topic, where legitimate influences clash. But it does not require wholescale endorsement of showing that cartoon to stand against mob morality and knee-jerk responses that undermine the professional integrity of teaching. Talk of the importance of the curriculum is very fashionable among teachers. Yet this incident is an attack on the curriculum. It justifies the notion that groups, through intimidation and by referring to the nebulous concept of offence, can regulate the school curriculum. Even if the cartoon was judged inappropriate for use in a Year 9 classroom, this is no way to go about making decisions about what is taught. It creates self-censorship and threatens education provision, where what is best for students might be curbed for fear of backlash. It is also not a sound basis from which to navigate occasions where values between the school and the home do come into conflict. Liberty in the classroom is not curbed with unambiguous pronouncements, but menacing incidents like this that generate new norms of behaviour and attitude.
The great liberal theorist Isiah Berlin comments in Two Concepts of Liberty on the uncomfortableness of admitting, in a liberal society, “that the fulfilment of some of our ideals may in principle make the fulfilment of others impossible”. We might strive for total harmony in relations between schools and the various communities they serve. But sometimes, that is not always possible. In which case a call needs to be made. Do you avoid causing tension and having difficult dialogue? Or do you uphold core educational principles and stand by one of your educators, even if that is hard. Tragically my profession seems to be opting for the former. A teacher is in hiding for his own safety because of cowardice. Shame on our silence.