Guaranteeing religious freedom

Psychologist Dr Michael Hymans looks at ways in which schools can create safe learning environments for students from different faiths

I recently watched a scene from the newly released film ‘Stations of the Cross’, which shows the challenges a 15-year-old girl experiences in trying to express her somewhat rigid religious views in a school environment. She faces bullying and ostracism from classmates and her teacher struggles to provide a safe learning environment that caters to the needs of students from multiple religious backgrounds.

This got me thinking about the complexities that both teachers and students are facing, and will continue to face, within the independent education system here in the UK – particularly as local communities becomes more multicultural and, in many respects, more secular.

The question arose: how can educators and advisers ensure that students continue to have the right to religious expression in a way that doesn’t impinge on curriculums or make students vulnerable to ostracism by their peers? 

Prejudice

I recently read an interview that Henry Winter, sports journalist for the Daily Telegraph, did with Eni Aluko, who played in front of a crowd of 55,000 at Wembley Stadium in the inaugural women’s football match between England and Germany.

Eni said: “I don’t think prejudice will ever come out of society: it’s a survival instinct. People look at differences as something they should fear, something they should attack. Prejudice is a human trait and rooted in insecurity. Educating people is important but people can use that as a token, saying, ‘Oh, I apologised, I’ve done a diversity course.’ That’s not enough.”

Eni is saying something that I believe is important for teachers to understand. That is, prejudice and intolerances often stem from insecurities. And insecurities commonly derive from misconceptions, confusion or misinformation – especially when people don’t have first-hand experiences to go on. As such, one of the keys to reducing prejudice among students is to foster feelings of security; and the way to do this is to encourage healthy classroom discussions and provide relevant information to correct misconceptions, misinformation and confusions. 

What type of information should teachers be giving students?

A good place to start is to educate students about the right to freedom of religion. This is a fundamental concept and legal right that underlies why religious tolerance and respect in the UK is so important.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which the UK is a signatory, protects the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, which encompasses “the freedom to change religion or belief” as well as “the freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest … religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” The ECHR has been incorporated into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998, and thus has binding weight within UK schools.

Educating students on the right to freedom of religion gives teachers an external point of authority to demonstrate why religious diversity and acceptance in the classroom is important. Referring to legal doctrines demonstrates that these principles are not unique to the school, but rather based on globally recognised ideas from around the world. Teachers may also wish to use these principles as a basis to develop a classroom charter of rights and responsibilities, which students and staff can be encouraged to sign.

Research shows that when students are taught about legal rights and responsibilities, they develop greater respect others, a more positive attitude towards school, better self-esteem, and better relationships with classmates and teachers. 

What else can schools and teachers do in practice?

It is best to confront religious complexities head on so that there is no ambiguity around what type of behaviour is acceptable within the classroom. Talk to students about religious discrimination, racism, multiculturalism, customs and other topics pertaining to diversity. Be proactive in investigating stereotypes and prejudices around religion and gather case studies and research to demonstrate why these ideas are often incorrect. As part of this, discuss where stereotypes come from and the negative impacts that often come with these – for both individuals and broader society. A good way to do this is to encourage students to reflect on times when they may have been wrongly judged or stereotyped, and examine how these experiences made them feel. Self-reflexivity is key, but adolescents often don’t have the emotional maturity to be able to instigate this process on their own.

Fun activities like discussing different holiday celebrations, cultural events and ethnic foods can also give students an opportunity to explore differences and similarities between people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

Additionally, teachers can also use texts to introduce and illustrate complex issues around religion and culture: a plethora of books and movies have been made about religious stereotypes and prejudices, which can be used as a basis for discussion and criticism. When discussing texts, it is best for teachers to use open-ended questions as these often promote deeper thinking and allow students to connect characters’ experiences to their own lives.

Teachers may also consider speakers with relevant experience or knowledge to speak to students about religious diversity. Police officers, social workers, immigration staff and religious diversity advocates can share their stories with students and make clear the dangers of stereotypes and prejudices. By hearing about a real-life example of stereotyping or discrimination, students may quickly learn how their thoughts and words can be damaging to others. 

‘Stations of the Cross’ was released on 28 November. W: https://tinyurl.com/l6qw7uc

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