Why schools need to think hard about what they tell their kids after terror attacks


School teaches you all kinds of things besides how to spell photosynthesis. The recent terror attacks in Turkey and Belgium instantly became a global event. As kids across the globe return to their classrooms, teachers are no doubt biting their nails thinking of the difficult conversations that are bound to come up.


#1 Teachers are in a position of power.

Contrary to popular belief, kids do listen to their teachers. OK we can’t back that up, but the point is that many kids will have questions about why all their parents suddenly got very quiet on Friday night, what they’re supposed to be thinking during this minute of silence, and why terror attacks happen.

This will weigh heavily on a lot of teachers, some of whom spend more time with students than their parents do, and who know that the way they handle this situation may have have a lasting impact. Judith A. Myers-Walls, professor emerita at Purdue University USA who has studied the impact of political violence on children, told the Independent: “The quality of the response depends a lot on the person who is responding. A teacher can do this very sensitively or very insensitively and some pretend it’s not happening at all.” What the kid actually takes away from a classroom conversation on terror attacks all depends on how the teacher handles it, no pressure.


#2 There is no easy explanation for terror attacks.

You’d have to be both a wizard and a scholar to really understand what led to the recent terror attacks and what they mean for the future. The situation is hard enough for adults to understand, let alone children.

Source: The Sun. Terror Attacks. Mourners lay candles at sites of attacks in Paris

Source: The Sun

It’s important to get the facts right, and there are lots of good resources for this: like this response to questions about whether Islam is to blame for the violence of a group like ISIS, or a back to basics explainer on what ISIS is. One middle school teacher in the US got in an expert to give a lesson to teachers on ISIS and the Middle East. What not to say: “Our religion Christianity teaches love, their religion teaches hate”. Don’t say that. This is what our friend’s cousin’s headmaster told the school assembly.

It’s also important to know how to communicate ideas to children of any age. Helpfully, there is a whole bunch of advice on this, like talking about bad actions as opposed to bad people, and ensuring kids have the space to talk through what they know and how they’re feeling before the adults jump in. You could see it as a problem that these methods aren’t rolled out across the whole country.


#3 Some kids already have the answers, sort of…

Classrooms are filled with kids with all sorts of views about the world. This is very often picked up at home or from other friends, and is normally what makes going to school so valuable. It can also lead to upset, and sometimes painful and lasting upset if students feel directly targeted for who they are by what other kids have to say.  

Kids need to feel safe and heard in school. This pamphlet from National Union of Teachers gives some pointers on how to teach controversial issues like terror attacks in an inclusive way:

– organise classroom discussion in ways which enable every pupil to participate in that discussion;

– ensure that the views of everyone in the class are properly heard;

– moderate negative opinions and strong emotions;

– focus on evidence and valid information;

– represent the different points of view as accurately and fairly as possible;

– where possible, use a variety of outside and community sources; and

– demonstrate respect for different opinions.

All we’ll say is it’s a damned fine skill to have.


#4 Discrimination is totally wrong, and also illegal.

It is illegal for an educational body to discriminate against children on grounds of their race or religion (or disability, sexuality, nationality, gender… just don’t). Things get a little more blurred when it comes to faith schools, and the fact that according to the Citizens’ Advice for England “In a community or foundation school, acts of collective worship, such as assemblies, must be of a general Christian nature.” For the most part, however, UK schools are attended by people of varied or no faith.

Islamophobic and anti-Semitic hate crime has increased in the last year, meaning teaching around this topic can be particularly important. The National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education has a resource dedicated to teaching Islam following Islamist extremist terror attacks.


#5 Feeling marginalised can have serious long term consequences.

Recent research from Connect Justice suggests that feeling discriminated against at a young age can play a big role in encouraging people to join groups advocating violent political goals and terror attacks, whether these are far-right groups or Islamist extremist groups. Being told your religion teaches hate might be the very thing that makes you feel disaffected. The majority of people would probably agree that discrimination on grounds of race or religion is a bad thing in itself, but it turns out that there might be a very practical argument against it.

However, some would argue that this sits uncomfortably alongside the UK government’s current policy of tackling homegrown extremism. As of 2015, places of education from nurseries to universities are bound by law to actively counter extremism and radicalisation, though the Home Office have had a tough job explaining what exactly they mean by these words.

Theresa May terror attacks

Home Secretary Theresa May

The government’s suggested strategy for tackling extremism is to keep a close eye on anyone who appears to be being radicalised and to promote what are being called “British values.” The problem is, if someone feels unfairly singled out for their beliefs, this might be counterproductive to say the least. This legislation was created to counter violence and terror attacks, but some say it gets tricky as teachers are in a legal bind to fight a poorly-defined concept of extremism, meaning you could end up targeting people’s beliefs rather than their actions. What would be a better way?

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Schools: did yours define your life chances?

Does the school you go to determine your future prospects? If so, is it fair that some have fees and entrance exams and others don’t? Katie Hopkins reckons that without grammar schools the clever kids are being held back. Others say grammar schools mean only the well-off get the opportunity. What about all these private schools and academies?

Someone explain! That’s what Scenes of Reason is here for.

What types of school are there in the UK?


Most people go to State School a.k.a a comprehensive. They are state funded and run by the local authority (council) and stick to the national curriculum. The curriculum is a set of subjects and standards created by the government. It’s all the things students should leave school knowing. Useful stuff like Pythagoras Theorem and don’t put your hand over a Bunsen burner.


This graphic tells you everything you need to know about UK schools.

Infographic explaining differences between UK school types


There are just under 25,000 schools in the UK (including nurseries, special schools and pupil referral units).


Around 80% of these are state funded. Only 10% of schools are private schools which charge fees.


There are only about 250 grammar schools across England and Ireland, and they flat out don’t exist in Scotland. There used to be a lot more but in 1998 Labour banned the creation of new grammar schools.


Social Mobility???


Social mobility ain't easy

Social mobility ain’t easy

The UK schools system is supposed to enable social mobility. This is a person’s movement over time from one class to another. When you hear “social mobility” in the news it’s probably about upwards social mobility. For example, the ability of an individual from the underprivileged classes to move up to the middle classes.


Private schools offer scholarships so smart kids without wealthy parents can attend for free. Grammar schools don’t charge fees but only let the smart kids in – so smart kids of all backgrounds can mix with other smart kids and not be held back by kid who don’t do as well in school.


That’s the theory of how it’s supposed to work.


Thing is, only 7% of the UK population have a private education – but a massive 71% of senior judges have private education (they earn massive dollar).


If everyone had equal opportunities regardless of what school they went to, then less than ten times as many private school kids would end up judges. Just saying.

The majority of the UK don't have private education, but the majority of the cabinet DO.

The majority of the UK don’t have private education, but the half of the cabinet DO.


The same goes for 44% of people on the Sunday Times Rich List, 54% of the top 100 media professionals and 50% of the current Cabinet (prime minister David Cameron’s top team).


Soooo… can we blame the UK school system for these inequalities in later life? This is a debate that has been going on for ages. People seem to get very pissy about it.


The Grammar School Debate


Just to remind you – grammar schools don’t charge you a penny, but they will only take you in if you pass the 11+ which you sit, umm, when you’re 11.


A lot of people reckon it’s totes not fair to sort the smart kids from the dumb ones at such a young age. It’s especially unfair, these people say, because this kind of testing doesn’t actually select the smart kids, it selects the kids whose richer parents were able to afford private tuition. A kid who is just as smart but whose parents lack the time, money or inclination to make sure they pass the 11+ is much less likely to get into a grammar school. Ring a bell anyone?



Then again, seeing as grammar schools tend to have way better academic results than state schools, a bunch of other people reckon that providing bright underprivileged kids with opportunity to go to these schools is worth it, because they will leave with much better prospects for getting a job they wouldn’t have done otherwise.


As columnist Katie Hopkins puts it:


Heavy angry stuff. And we were all caught in the middle of it just a few years ago when we were school age. Does where you are today prove that it’s the wealthy smart kids who get in over the less wealthy and non-tutored bright sparks? Or does it prove that selective schools like grammars offer better opportunities for smart kids, regardless of their backgrounds?



School Findings; there is massive angry debate over what is best for the kids.

There are many individuals who prove that our education does not have to define us. Yet, there would seem to be a more systematic problem with elitism in the UK. Are schools to blame? Or would these people have ended up in the top jobs regardless of the school they went to, because of other things like family wealth and connections?



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