Earlier this year the National Union of Teachers (NUT) held their annual conference in the UK. Corbyn and his political colleagues attempted to appease angry teachers and all manner of issues were debated (yes, we teachers love the sound of our strident voices!). For the uninitiated, some key debates that made UK news were (apologies now, you might doze off):
The issue of ‘acadamy status’ . Academies are schools in England that are funded directly by the Department for Education (DfE) and operate independently of the local authority. There are two types of academy. “Converter” academies where the school governors apply for academy status. “Sponsored” academies are schools that the Government has labelled as “underperforming” and put under the control of an academy sponsor.
The issue of assessment for four-year olds. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, said: ‘ . . . research showed that this year’s Baseline assessment did not accurately reflect what four-year-olds can do. It disrupted their start to school and introduced potentially harmful labelling.
The issue of child poverty. The Government is attempting to . . . remove the child poverty measures and targets. Their alternative conception of ‘social mobility’ is deeply problematic. Teachers are doing everything they can to support disadvantaged children but cannot, alone, compensate for the child poverty which some of their pupils are facing.
Many other pedagogical debates were held throughout the conference but I am not aware whether Human Rights in terms of the refugee crisis and mass immigration was included. I am of the opinion that this is an issue of grave importance in education today, most pertinent for those who teach younger children who are developing traits such as empathy and beginning to understand that the world does not revolve around their needs.
Human Rights in the Classroom.
I teach nine-year olds in East London, UK. Historically the area was white working class; young men circled the station restraining their dangerous dogs and muttering about ‘bleeding immigrants’. Families were openly infuriated when ‘blacks’ moved next-door.
Yet now I teach children from most corners of the world; economic changes and the cheap cost of living on the local estate has made this area attractive to many families. In front of me in our classroom (and our large school) are children from Russia, Ghana, Pakistan, China, Gambia, Nigeria, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, the Caribbean and many more continents of the world. It is a privilege to engage with such diverse cultures. I have learnt about Gambia, an African country I previously knew little about, apart from its geographical position: Gambia’s government has been criticised by international rights groups for its attitude to civil liberties, especially freedom of the press. I have learnt about Lithuania from a wise pupil who quietly informed me that there was one very big difference between the Uk and her country: she stated that there are no black people in Lithuania. I am continuously fascinated by the pupils relationships with each other and how they develop in terms of the very different cultures the children come from.
Syrian refugee children in the classroom.
We receive children’s newspapers to use within out literacy teaching; the front page showed an image of a distraught Syrian child (aged around eleven). Dirty, exhausted with an expression of such sorrow. Although the UK curriculum is tightly controlled – daily one hour lessons of literacy and numeracy, weekly Science lessons, there is some freedom to include ‘philosophical’ debate within the daily reciprocal reading half-hour. So I planned a lesson around this image of the Syrian refugee child. I began by displaying the image to the whole class. I was most interested to hear their opinions so I told the children that this image showed a Syrian child who had to leave her country because of conflict (war). It was possible that her family had been killed. It was possible that she was alone. It was certain that she was hungry and exhausted and in desperate need and that she was coming to the UK with other Syrian children and adults because she could no longer live safely in her own country.
I then asked the nine-year old children in front of me the hundred-dollar question: Should we allow these Syrian children into the UK?
After allowing some minutes for discussion with their fellow pupils, individual pupils put forward their responses which I then countered with further questions.
The first response ( as anticipated) was that yes, we must help these children and of course they should be allowed into the UK. My question was, HOW can we help them? This pupil suggested that each child is given £10. A simple response, but fair enough. I asked, , ‘ but WHERE will the £10 come from?’ After a little thought the child suggested that David Cameron (our slimey Conservative Prime Minister) could ‘find’ this money! Again, a fair enough response from a nine-year old ( I did not develop this answer as I believed the complexities of the UK tax system was unnecessary at this point). The debate continued with all pupils asserting that we MUST help the Syrian children by giving them a variable sum of money. I then interjected and suggested that £10 is a limited amount and that anyone who is homeless and hungry needs a roof over their heads and sustenance that would prove more costly in the long term.
A child suggested he could take in a Syrian child into his own home. I asked, ‘What would your family think about that? Do you have enough room in your home?’ I added that this suggestion was really thoughtful; I personally would consider this action but I live in a small flat and it would not be feasible. Again, there was more discussion between pupils and I moved to another child to speak, a Nigerian boy. He stated that he would NOT want to allow any more refugees into the country as some of them are ‘dangerous’. My response was that his opinion was valid but why did he believe this? He was unsure but repeated his opinion.
The discussion moved on to reflect upon the meaning of the word ‘immigrant’, asking, ‘what does this word mean?’ I stated that maybe some of your families have come to the UK from another country and told the children that my grandfather was an immigrant one-hundred years ago, arriving here as a refugee with his family on a boat, maybe very similar to the Syrian refugees . I asked, WHY do some families leave their home country to travel to a very different country? Many children explained how their families had moved to the UK because of the opportunities for a better education, others were less sure of the reasons (although some are from war-torn countries). My intention here was for children to reflect upon the meaning of immigrant and recognise it positively not negatively; to know that borders are human constructs and all our ancestors (each and every one of us) were, at one time, an immigrant.
We returned to the image of the Syrian child, asking, HOW can you help? Remember, these are nine-year olds. No new suggestions were put forward so I returned to the news article. The charity ‘Save the Children ‘ was mentioned so I explained the purpose of this. A recent publication explained that, ‘almost every child we’ve spoken to has seen family members killed. They have seen and experienced things that no child should ever see, and many are deeply traumatised as a result. Their testimonies also corroborate violations documented by the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in recent months. The acts described are consistent, recurring and appalling’. In response, Save the Children is working in refugee camps and communities on the borders of Syria, helping children fleeing the devastation. Their teams are there to keep them safe, provide basics like food and blankets and most importantly to help them deal with their traumatic experiences. But their funds are running low and they urgently need more support.
I suggested that a positive way to help might be to forgo the Easter chocolate from an adult and ask this adult to contribute £5 to the charity ‘Save the Children’ who will definitely put this to good use to aid the Syrian refugees. My hope was that a small number of my pupils would at least suggest this to their families, opening the debate even if the action was not followed through. I was a little anxious that some of the East London dangerous dog owners might react with, ‘Who the hell does that teacher think she is, banging on about those immigrants’ but dogs are banned from the playground so I am safe from imminent attack.
I am certain that the children I teach can develop their understanding of Human Rights through such philosophical discussions and I am certain that these discussions are as important as becoming literate and numerate. To develop empathy and an altruistic lifestyle can only temper the commonly held British opinions that immigration is the cause of many problems in the UK and Europe, perpetuated by the media. Unfortunately, UKIP has huge support here. These views must be countered, although teachers cannot force-feed the children their Political values. The aim of Kingston-Mouth is to inform and widen the debate around Human Rights. I am in the privileged position to introduce philosophical discussion within my classroom to wise and thoughtful young children who know that their differences are their strengths. I am hopeful that they are beginning to understand that basic Human Rights are everyone’s right and it is our individual efforts that will achieve this in terms of the present refugee crisis.
This article was written by Ann Smith, Human Rights Activist and Teacher, with an interest in Child Development, focusing on multi-cultural issues within the classroom.