Attention to Radicalisation in Schools Has Never Been More Necessary | Dan Mikhaylov
Less than a month after schools had been reopened, an obstreperous group of Pimlico Academy students staged a demonstration to protest the actions of the recently appointed principal, Daniel Smith. Although British students do not have the same tradition of expressing their discontent as their American counterparts, who organised a national walkout in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, neither the press nor the British public would have ordinarily paid considerable attention to such action. It might have been disproportionate to what the students wanted to remove or change, but there is nothing inherently surprising about students complaining about school uniform regulations or bemoaning the school’s strict code of conduct. If anything, many pupils would have forgotten them over the lockdown and required both time and lenience to readjust to normality.
The reason why this occasion is different and why British policymakers should examine this protest’s underlying forces is how the students ended up protesting. Rather than channelling their inner dissatisfaction with the newly implemented school uniform and haircut policies into a cooperative, peaceful campaign to convince the headmaster to alter his stance, participants vandalised the school building with provocative graffiti and purported that both the school curriculum and the Union flag displayed outside its entrance constitute unwelcome reminders of colonial oppression. All along, this rhetoric received support from the National Education Union (NEU), which approved a no-confidence motion against Smith and refused to condemn pupil attacks on state-funded property. In short, this unfortunate event has amply demonstrated that our younger generations are growing disrespectful of all forms of responsibility. Pupils are turning against those who teach them, the communities that finance that teaching, and the country that strives to protect those communities.
This illustrates the unequivocal tragedy of state education in Britain. The conservative movement’s connivance at the rise and ensuing consolidation of critical theories in academic and pedagogical circles and failure to resist them with concrete alternatives have resulted in the radical hijacking of our educational institutions. What used to be a noble profession has ceased to be such: under several Conservative governments, teacher salaries have diminished by more than £4,000 since 2010 in real terms, while the 2019 election manifesto pledge to elevate teaching to among the most competitive professions in the graduate labour market with a £30,000 starting wage remains unfulfilled. It is precisely thanks to this disregard for teaching that the new norm happens to be so terrifying to both conservatives and many ordinary Britons of rival political affiliations. This new norm is about a UK school removing the name of Winston Churchill – whose figure reflects not so much his individual accomplishments as the stoic and solidaric behaviour of thousands during the Second World War – from one of its houses. This new norm is about proposals to topple down a statue to Cecil Rhodes, despite his contributions to Britain’s anti-slavery campaigns worldwide and his name not being subject to the same vituperation in South Africa, where his modern critics allege that he conducted genocide. Lastly, and in many respects most worryingly, this new norm is about the National Education Union (NEU) of 510,000 teachers across Britain metamorphosing into a political institution, which has previously attempted to coordinate a nationwide boycott of Israel, is affiliated with the anti-Semitic Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and is evidently content with the ongoing assault on our values and history.
Under any other circumstances, conservatives might have sympathised with the protesting students. After all, the headmaster’s reform of school rules – which was among the motivations behind their actions – is hardly impeccable. While his prescription that hijabs must match school uniform colours is understandable and could be justified with the need to maintain the feeling of unity and discipline that pupils elicit through wearing the same attire, his decision to prohibit hair “styles that hide the face or may block the view of others in class” was inconsiderate. Although the government’s advisor on class discipline, Tom Bennett, called it “reasonable”, the fact that many other schools have comparable restrictions implemented suggests that little heed was paid to the local demographic and socioeconomic circumstances. Pimlico Academy is attended by hundreds of students of Black Caribbean and Black African origin, whose natural hairstyles might involve those that do not conform to the aforementioned rules and might inflict additional punishments on those schoolchildren, and hairdresser services remain unavailable to the public according to the government’s blueprint for exiting lockdown. Therefore, had this been the sole issue at stake, there would have been significantly less backlash against the student protests.
Lamentably, the context, in which the pupil demonstration took place, necessitated a different response altogether. As a starting point, the protestors dared to vandalise government property by painting graffiti, which said that “Pimlico Academy [is] run by racists” and “ain’t [sic] no Black in the Union Jack”. Taxpayers will have to pick up the bill for refurbishing the school facilities, but even more alarmingly, by defacing the school, those students effectively signalled that they do not their community and the infrastructure that supports it in high regard. Furthermore, they disrespected the country itself. Their accusation that the Union flag symbolised colonial oppression reflects the wider hatred towards the flag within the local pupil community, which merits immediate government attention. In the past, the Union flag was torn down and set alight in Churchill Gardens, a housing estate that accommodates more than half the Pimlico Academy attendees, which indicates that their aforementioned demands to remove it cannot be interpreted to have been spontaneous. Worse still is the NEU’s complicity in these deconstructive actions; at least a hundred of the academy teachers hold active memberships in the organisation and took part in the no-confidence vote against Smith.
The government should not leave this unaddressed. Pupil outrage at the status-quo predates the newly introduced school uniform, given the earlier flag burning incident as well as student criticisms that the Pimlico Academy did not conduct special assemblies and lessons in September to demonstrate its support for the controversial Black Lives Matter movement. The latter is unlikely to dissipate soon, with players continuing to kneel down in the name of this anti-establishment group at football matches, with the National Trust launching initiatives to “decolonise” the past, and with many a doubting Thomas still exculpating their BLM activists’ mistreatment of the Cenotaph and historical monuments. Having served to inspire or even directly instigate the school demonstration, this destructive social force cannot be anticipated to wither and disappear; hence government action is all the more necessary to prevent this kind of radicalism from taking further root within our schools.
Firstly, our Parliament should adopt appropriate legislation in relation to the British flag. Currently, our respect for, and use of, the Union flag hinges on custom and societal concord, rather than a statute that befits modernity. This question deserves to be revisited, with governments prescribing that national flags – which ex vi termini ought not to have any other connotations than that of Britain and its diverse, yet equally valued inhabitants – be displayed outside all government buildings. This is the best tribute that could be paid to our taxpayers whose contributions undergird the running of our schools and universities as well as many other services that make us proud to be British, and this does not break with tradition, since flying the national banner outside most public buildings is already custom. Moreover, the government should consider implementing fines for vandalising the flag both because this more often than not involves infringing on another person’s property rights and because assailing the national symbol that represents the past and present sacrifices and contributions of many Britons is surely tantamount to engaging in hateful and antisocial behaviour. Violating the flag is designed to offend, and if our criminal justice system has determined to punish such behaviour that is deemed offensive to other individuals under the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, this must arguably extend to vandalising Britain’s national symbols.
Secondly, this Conservative administration should build on the success of the 2016 Trade Union Act, which helped depoliticise trade unions by requiring that member contributions to political funds necessitate explicit approval, to circumscribe the ability of those labour organisations that represent state employees to partake in political activity. Depriving government staff of their right to form associations to increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis their employee might in many respects overstep the mark, but the current composition of these trade unions requires urgent reform. This is particularly true for teachers’ unions, as their commitment to political projects undermines our educators’ objectivity and threatens to permit ideological indoctrination in our schools. The NEU’s annual delegations to Palestine and Cuba, decision to finance and organise campaigns against UKIP from its political fund show, and privileged acknowledgement of the Labour Party within its conference documents all vindicate that this organisation has collective biases, which can reinforce the individual political preferences and biases of teachers and result in more ideological in-classroom teaching. This, in turn, contradicts one of the most important principles of education: teaching young people to think for themselves and handle information critically.
In conclusion, the recent student demonstration at the Pimlico Academy is further evidence of how radicalised our schools and universities have become. With pupils slandering our flag and national curriculum as racist and a priori oppressive, the British public has all the more reason to be worried about our country’s future – or lack thereof, if those who disrespect the very values and histories that unite this country and define its citizens succeed at repainting them as detestable and worthy of oblivion. The situation might not appear so dire at first glance, but the government would be folly to overlook this incident. The nation must learn from this that both our national symbols and our schools need to be protected against destructive anti-establishment forces, and I insist that Britain must accordingly act to defend them. My twofold proposal is straightforward: set in stone our traditions of honouring the Union flag and further check teacher union’s participation in mainstream politics to ensure future generations of young Britons remember to pay due respect to their predecessors’ contributions and sacrifices, all carried out in the name of the Union flag and for the benefit of all Britons.