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In the modern classroom, teachers face an increasingly precarious balance between educational integrity and religious sensitivity. Historical reckonings echo through these contemporary challenges. Throughout the annals of history, from the classical Athenian agora to the Renaissance universities, the primacy of critical thinking has often been a guiding beacon. Socrates, in ancient Athens, dared to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, igniting intellectual flames that illuminated the path toward enlightenment and was executed for it. The Renaissance heralded a return to those ideas following the rediscovery of Greek classical texts.

However, the shadows of censorship and dogma have perennially loomed over the hallowed halls of education. Recent incidents have once again thrust this issue into the spotlight, making it clear that teachers urgently need protections against blasphemy claims to ensure their safety, uphold freedom of expression and maintain the integrity of our education system.

An independent review into political violence and disruption, conducted by the Government’s adviser Lord Walney, is set to recommend legal protections for teachers against blasphemy claims by religious groups. This is a significant move in safeguarding education. As reported by The Times, these proposals could be a game-changer for the education sector, ensuring that teachers can perform their duties without fear of retribution or violence.

The Batley Grammar School incident in March 2021 starkly illustrated the dangers teachers face when accusations of blasphemy arise. A teacher was forced into hiding with his family after showing a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in class. He has received death threats and remains under protection. Such extreme reactions threaten not only the individuals involved, but also the broader teaching community, instilling a culture of fear.

The Batley Grammar School case is not an isolated event. In 2019, religious groups attempted to halt LGBT-inclusive education at a Birmingham school. Nor is this problem unique to the UK. Consider the case of Samuel Paty – a French teacher who was beheaded in 2020 for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on free speech – further highlights the dire need for robust protections for educators. These incidents serve as grim reminders of the risks teachers face when educational content intersects with religious sensitivities.

Walney’s proposals aim to dismantle the “de facto blasphemy code” that has taken hold in schools, as highlighted by a YouGov survey. The survey revealed that 16% of teachers have self-censored to avoid offending religious sensibilities, stifling open dialogue and critical thinking in education.

By urging the Department for Education to issue statutory guidance, Walney’s report lays the groundwork for creating a safer, more supportive environment for teachers. 

Current practices often see teachers immediately suspended following blasphemy accusations, regardless of the context or intent behind their actions. The proposed protections would prevent schools from automatically suspending teachers, ensuring a fair and measured response to allegations. By providing a bulwark against knee-jerk reactions and unjust suspensions, these protections ensure that teachers can fulfil their vocation without the threat of suspension hanging over their heads.

Teachers accused of blasphemy frequently find themselves thrust into the public eye, facing potential danger. The proposed guidance would also prevent schools from publicly identifying teachers involved in such claims, protecting their privacy and reducing the risk of targeted harassment.

Unlike with sex education, where parental and community consultation is mandated, the new guidelines would allow schools to teach potentially sensitive content without compulsory external approval. This autonomy is crucial for educators to present comprehensive, unbiased educational material without fear of backlash.

The inclusion of religious dogma in the classroom – particularly forms of religious extremism, like Islamism – is inherently repressive and detrimental to the core principles of education. Education is fundamentally about fostering critical thinking, encouraging intellectual curiosity and promoting a well-rounded understanding of the world. When religious dogma infiltrates the educational environment, it stifles these objectives by imposing a rigid framework of beliefs that are not open to questioning or debate. 

When students are taught to accept certain beliefs without scrutiny, it undermines their ability to critically evaluate information, engage in rational discourse or make informed decisions. These skills are not only essential for academic success, but also for navigating contemporary life.

Indeed, the imposition of religious dogma in schools can marginalise and alienate students from diverse backgrounds. In a multicultural society, the classroom should be a space where diverse perspectives are valued and respected. When one religious viewpoint is given precedence, it can create an environment of exclusion for those who do not share that belief system. This can lead to a divided student body, fostering an atmosphere of intolerance and discrimination. In the case of Islamism, which can be particularly prescriptive and uncompromising, the effects can be especially pronounced, as it often clashes with secular values and the principles of human rights, such as gender equality and the freedom of expression.

Ultimately, the protection of educators from blasphemy claims is not merely a matter of legal or procedural reform; it is a moral imperative. Historically, the suppression of dissenting views and the enforcement of dogma have led to periods of intellectual stagnation and social repression. It is incumbent upon us, as a society, to ensure that the sanctity of learning remains inviolate. The Government must act on Lord Walney’s recommendations and seize this moment to reaffirm our commitment to the principles of freedom and reason that lie at the heart of our educational ethos.

Isabella Wallersteiner is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

[Image: Azzedine Rouichi]