I may be straying into controversial territory but here goes…
A week or so ago, I led a most joyful (and slightly bonkers) assembly. Our pupils were in their usual place, though decked in the bright primary colours of their houses. I was also in my usual place, but alongside me I had seventeen students and teachers from Sierra Leone, several of them visually impaired. Alongside them were fifteen students and teachers from Indonesia, also with several blind students. Across the way, we had students and teachers from St Vincent’s School for the Blind (don’t think I need to spell that one out). Next to them, we had the Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, guests from the Pakistan Centre, our own Parish Priest and the Imam from the largest mosque in the city.
Now, we are in an area of the city which is very white-British. Years ago, before I started the job, I was made aware of sectarian tensions between the Catholic/Protestant community, never mind tensions over immigration or ethnicity. Whilst the sectarian tensions have dissipated, the ethnic ones have grown as the years have passed. A pupil from India came to us in Year 6 this year and lasted three days – her parents had their car tyres slashed, and windows smashed. They did not wait around for restorative justice.
So one would think that this was an assembly where we could celebrate the language of inclusion whilst denigrating all the divisive rhetoric that has besmirched much of our society.
And yet I don’t think the following words were mentioned at all:- division, difference, prejudice, racism, hate crime, outsiders, disability, inclusive, discrimination, equality…I could go on.
I spoke, the Chief Constable spoke, the Imam spoke, the children spoke, the children sang, the children clapped. It was all natural and normal. The Chief Constable talked of the area in glowing terms, not talking it down. The Imam spoke about how British society had been so welcoming to him. The teachers from Sierra Leone and Indonesia reflected on the value of partnership and friendship.
So why controversial?
Well, I just think that some things are just best ‘done’, and not rammed down our throats with ever more strident rhetoric. By emphasising just how much we need our equality, or that we deserve our rights, or demand to be included, we can actually exacerbate the very divisions we are trying to heal. The Momentum wing of the Labour Party is a prime culprit, fermenting a siege mentality of victimhood and outrage.
Children are not stupid, and we should not patronise them. If they see adults in their community behaving in a natural and normal way amongst themselves, then they will take the example. However, if they also see adults behaving in hysterical and angry ways, not matter how justified their point is, they will copy.
We shouldn’t need to spell it out for them with specific programmes, initiatives or appeals. Compartmentalising such important issues risks them being seen as divorced from daily lives. I do not wish to criticise programmes such as the ubiquitous ‘No Outsiders’ example – it may be excellent – but the ensuing anger and outrage from both sides surely can do no one any good.
In our case, we gave our pupils the chance to buddy and befriend children from other parts of the world, sighted and blind, giving them a wonderful sense of agency and responsibility. I didn’t need to tell them to be extra careful because they were black, Muslim or disabled, nor prepare them with any particular programme. I’m not sure anyone was really bothered. In the end, they’re just kids. And this is something that is happening all the time throughout the curriculum (we’ve just had a great week with a group of Chinese pupils). It’s not just a add-on (tick the box!) to do once the Y6 pupils have finished SATs.
Now it wasn’t all perfect. When I think of it, all the key speakers were male and (I think) heterosexual. So work to be done there maybe. But in general, the children were getting a very clear understanding of difference without it being screamed back at them.
Surely, some things are best seen and experienced, and in such circumstances, very few words are required.
*And here’s a bit more – interview with me and Abu, the blind pianist from Sierra Leone..