Imans, soldiers, schools and the NUT
04 Apr 2008 BBC News Online
Imams, soldiers, schools and the NUT
Was it just the snow during the unusually early Easter that made it seem as if the world had turned topsy-turvy?
Or did you get the impression that the National Union of Teachers' annual conference had completely flipped: banning the British armed forces from the classroom whilst simultaneously demanding that a battalion of imams should be sent into state schools to indoctrinate pupils?
It certainly made for some dramatic newspaper headlines. The Daily Express declared: "Teachers to ban armed forces from classrooms."
Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph had "Muslim clerics 'should teach in our schools''' and the Sun offered the snappy headline 'Imams in schools'.
It must have been right because several columnists expressed their outrage at this lack of patriotism and I am sure I heard a Thought for the Day speaker refer to the classroom ban on the military as if it was an accepted fact.
Typical of the reaction to this apparently shocking news was a letter to one newspaper which said the NUT might next ban police visits to schools because they could be intimidating or stop the use of 'lollipop ladies' because they undermine children's ability to exercise independent judgement.
The trouble is that these commentators were not at the NUT conference.
Like most people they relied on media reports that interpreted the events there.
And, as any media studies GCSE student could tell you, headlines can be misleading.
Because, in fact, the NUT did not vote to ban the military from entering schools. Indeed, they do not have the power to carry out such a ban even if they wished to.
What they actually voted for was to support teachers who refused to take part in military recruitment activities "that are based upon misleading propaganda".
Now that is quite different. As I have not seen the material in question, I cannot judge whether it was one-sided or misleading.
But surely if teachers feel that visiting speakers or educational materials are promoting a one-sided view of current affairs, then they are right to express their concerns and to ensure that alternative views are also given.
Schools are not the place for propaganda, whether it is pro or anti-war or, for that matter, pro or anti-capitalism.
Indeed the 1996 Education Act specifically forbids schools from allowing "the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school".
It also says that where political issues are put to pupils there should be "a balanced presentation of opposing views".
Mind you, there is a distinction to be made between what the NUT conference voted for and the views expressed by one or two speakers during the debate, which many will have considered inappropriate at a time when British soldiers are being killed doing their duty in Iraq.
Comments such as those describing troops as "cannon fodder for the profits of oil companies" would certainly be regarded as "partisan" if they had been delivered in schools rather than at a union conference.
Most of the newspaper stories written by reporters at the conference give a fair account of what happened there but it is the headlines - often written by sub-editors back at the newsroom - that provide a misleading prism.
The same was true of coverage of the NUT's proposal that, in the interests of community cohesion, leaders of the many different faiths in Britain should be invited into all schools to offer religious instruction.
Now this is a controversial proposal. It managed to upset, in almost equal measure, both faith leaders and secularists. I leave others to judge its merits.
But what was alarming was the way many newspaper headlines chose to focus on just one part of this, namely the possibility of Muslim clerics going into schools.
The Daily Express headline, for example, filled almost the entire front-page with huge letters stating "Fury over plan to teach Koran in schools".
Once again, the effect of the headlines was to arouse a knee-jerk response by over-simplifying what was being said.
To turn a story like this into a scary headline just about Islam does not seem to serve any one well. It stokes the very fears that damage community cohesion.
Of course this sort of coverage of the teacher union conferences is nothing new.
Easter is a quiet time for news and stories from the NUT help fill the news pages which otherwise have to rely on stories about holiday traffic chaos and unseasonably cold weather.
But it must have left many news consumers with the impression that the Army, Navy and RAF have all been banned from classrooms while busloads of imams are about to descend on schools.
It may help sell newspapers, but I really cannot see how raising everyone's blood pressure in this way every Easter helps.