Monthly Archives: February 2010

Chinese whispers

While reading my local paper online, I came across a contribution from the public that complained that Muslims in the UK are given latitude to act differently to the rest of the people, showing that Muslim lobby groups have the government in their pocket. Combined with the Islamophobia that is prevalent now, it feeds into the idea that a different group is somehow taking over. And as ever, the full story is ignored for the game of Chinese whispers that is our media machine.

The specific claim is that ‘Ed Balls has made it legal to smack children in muslim schools’, and this something that can’t be done elsewhere. As ever, the object of the attack is the Labour government, who are seen to be ‘bending over backwards’ to incorporate minority viewpoints (usually accompanied by the claim that they rely on minority votes).

Reading this, I thought ‘this seems unlikely to be true’. Making opt-outs from laws on ‘community’ grounds, whether religion/ethnicity or anything else is fraught with danger, and the government would avoid it at all costs. And, of course, it isn’t true. The truth behind this story is that staff in schools haven’t been allowed to use physical punishment children since 1999 (for England and Wales) and in state schools this happened earlier. However, parents aren’t banned from smacking their children (unless it is ‘cruel and degrading’), and thus anyone standing in for parents (in loco parentis) isn’t banned either. The only people banned are teachers in schools. And to define a school, the government chose to define them as establishments where kids go for 12.5 hours or more. Therefore, football or gymnastics coaches, sunday school teachers, music tutors, home schooling tutors, scout masters, parents’ friends and family, and anyone who is asked by a parent to look after children is allowed to smack. The BBC have posted a good history of the law, and point out that:

‘Some MPs have proposed a new clause for an education Bill currently before Parliament… meaning that only a person with actual parental responsibility for a child could continue to justify battery of that child as “reasonable chastisement”.’

So how did this claim about muslim schools come about? First Ann Cryer, MP asked a question in parliament about ‘teachers in madrassahs or in other religious schools’ (Hansard, BBC). Ed Balls pointed out that ‘there is not one rule for a child in a madrassah and another for a child in a school or in any other circumstance’ but didn’t promise to do something about part-time settings, presumably knowing that it would be a step towards a ban on smacking by parents too.

Next, and because of the simplification required for the headline and first two or three sentences in news pieces (see Wikipedia for a good explanation – I think this is a Nut Graph(!)) the story became:

‘Under existing law, teachers at state and private schools are banned from smacking children but their counterparts in faith schools are not.’ (Keighley News)

This claim is a lie, and is only explained properly at the middle of the piece.  But this sentence gets repeated:

‘A loophole in the law means that while teachers in state and private schools are banned from smacking children, their counterparts in faith schools are not.’ (Guardian)

This is so close that in an academic context could be considered plagiarism, unless citing the source. Again, explaining the actual law comes later.

But that dig at journalism is a digression. Now we have the idea that all faith schools are exempt (due to simplifying the story), and that it’s got something to do with Islam. Then politicians get back in on the act with the Lib Dem spokesman saying “The government needs to legislate to protect children – not leave an opt-out simply because it fears some ethnic or religious backlash.” (Guardian).

So instead of a bigger story about the fact that piano teachers are still allowed to rap children’s fingers with a ruler, Koran and Bible classes can enforce rote learning with similar methods, and parents, friends, family and babysitters are allowed to smack children in their care, we end up with the false claim that teachers in Muslim schools can smack and other teachers can’t. Is that right? No. Is it true. No again.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under communities, government, media, News

No good reason

News that caught my eye this week included the rise in fines levied on people who take their children out of school. In the UK, a school can fine parents £50 (rising to £100 if not paid in 28 days), if their children are absent without good reason. The spin on this story is that some people are taking their children on foreign holidays in term-time because it’s out of season and so cheaper, and these people are damaging their children’s education.

However, it’s important to note that there are a number of reasons why a family can take a child out of school and will get permission. These include religious observance, weddings and so on. These absences can, of course, damage a child’s education, but the assumption is that these days can’t be changed, whereas a holiday can. Here is the official guidance.

This privileges certain kinds of events (religious festivals, taking part in ‘approved’ sport, wedddings) over others. It’s difficult to see why the state or headteachers should be able to make a value judgement as to which is worthwhile. Should a child be given an authorised absence for a political conference or a protest march? Who decides which religions count? What about looking after family members? One can see the puritanical hand of government here – work and education good, leisure bad – and also the audit culture: some absences count against the school’s attendance record and some don’t and schools don’t want bad statistics.

And when it comes to justice, it also raises the question, ‘what is freedom?’. Yes, theoretically all parents could choose to take holidays out of term time. But many can’t afford to. Perhaps there is greater harm in a child never having a holiday away from home than missing some school days. If the government really want to ensure people don’t take their kids out in term time, then perhaps they should force holiday companies to alter their pricing, subsidise poor people’s holidays, or, as a simpler solution, increase the minimum wage and benefit rates /introduce a citizens’ wage.

Leave a comment

Filed under government, News, Statistics and simplicity