Phil-Champain-portrait-200x200Phil Champain, 3FF Director

Following the US presidential elections, Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said they are providing resources to principals, counselors and teachers to help students through the “strong feelings” they may have about the results.

Nearly half of the 380,000 students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools are either Hispanic or multi-racial, according to district data.

“With emotions running high after the presidential election, we want to affirm our commitment to the values of diversity, tolerance and fairness in our schools,” Claypool and Jackson wrote in a statement to parents and families.

“Every one of our students has the right to a safe, welcoming school environment where they feel valued and respected. We are proud of our District’s diversity, and believe that every student, regardless of race, ethnicity, background, sexual orientation, language or culture has the right to reach their full potential.” The omission of ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ from this list is evident, but implicit nevertheless.

On this side of the pond, and in the wake of the EU referendum result, the UK’s Department For Education (DFE) issued a statement in July in which they said:

‘All schools will continue to play an important role in promoting the fundamental British values of mutual respect and tolerance for those of all backgrounds and faiths. We are clear that no child should live in fear of racism or bullying, and by law all schools must have a behaviour policy with measures to tackle bullying.’

There is an unsettling unfolding here. It’s a story of the vulnerability of schools, to the divisive outcomes of recent elections on either side of the Atlantic. The story recognises the sponge-like properties of schools, as institutions absorbing the sharpened divisions and rhetoric that accompanies the aftermath of what have been markedly divisive and polarising elections.

Indeed, following the EU referendum the UK government, concerned about the rise of hate crime in schools, undertook an assessment of the level of anti-Muslim, anti-semitic, homophobic, racist and other bullying in schools. ‘This will be used to “inform further action” against such bullying’ said Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary.

There is no doubt about the emotional nature of the teacher’s task. (I speak from experience). Teachers handle the daily emotions of their charges, as they process what they see and hear around them. In this sense, schools both absorb and process change. What is critically important is to provide opportunities for pupils to express their feelings and opinions in a safe environment. However, delivering this essential function is a difficult and complex task given the post referendum context.

The difficulty lies in how best to manage feelings in ways that provide space for open expression yet are also constructive, reducing hatred rather than inciting it, and instilling an inclusive culture of open exploration.

It is difficult to craft education policy that can support this handling of emotion and opinion. Such policy requires measures to support both safeguarding and critical enquiry. The current government consultation into Schools that work for everyone is a part of this endeavor. As part of this consultation, the 50% cap on Faith Schools is under review and the ‘twinning’ or linking of faith schools to improve integration is under consideration. Efforts to ensure faith schools can build resilience to polarising attitudes is welcomed – to be part of the solution rather than the problem. And 3FF is playing its part.

Our inaugural Faith School Linking launch took place last month and was featured in our October newsletter. This has prompted discussions with both the Department for Education (DFE) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) about how we can do more to support schools during this unsettling period of sharpened social divisions and uncertainty surrounding integration.

Both our linking programme and our workshops offer opportunities for school pupils to explore personal, lived experiences of faith and belief, thereby challenging simplistic labels that compartmentalise us into distinct groups.

In the context of recent elections that have surfaced deep seated divisions within families and communities, it is more important than ever to have opportunities to explore who we are as individuals, how we view the world, our faiths and beliefs, and the meaning we make of our lives. And nowhere is this more appropriate than in the shock absorbing environment of the school.

Let’s give schools and teachers the support they need. To be part of institutions that can constructively handle difference, rather than shy away from this challenge in the face of shifting government policy and a polarising public narrative that fails to communicate the complexities underpinning recent voting patterns on either side of the Atlantic.

Find out more about 3FF’s work in schools