Boris comments could unravel all the hard work done in classrooms

Under pressure: Boris Johnson
Under pressure: Boris Johnson

Like many teachers currently on a break from Sheffield schools, I have been busy preparing resources ready for September.

This week I’ve focused on some areas that will cover the citizenship curriculum, that all-important but often grey area schools should cover to develop the city’s young people.

The voices of ten thousand teachers do not have the same media platform as one former foreign secretary.

Some schools are better at this than others and give it great emphasis. They encourage students to sit the GCSE citizenship exam and incorporate a lesson of citizenship into Key Stage 3 to cover issues currently affecting the world.

Schools can also teach citizenship in other ways, perhaps by collapsing the timetable to hold a Citizenship Day, delivering content through assemblies or dedicating form period to the topics.

All teachers should try to include some notion of citizenship within lessons. Whether we deliver history, drama or chemistry, we are all citizenship teachers as well, even if it’s sometimes tricky to flag it up in the classroom. There is an expectancy, that we are all contributing towards helping the young people in front of us play a more constructive, active role in society – this is what the citizenship agenda has at its heart.

Understanding other countries and developing greater tolerance are key themes I return to; I don’t pretend world peace is going to break out because of my plenaries, but hopefully they will make some kids think about moral issues and the benefits of integrated societies.

The voices of ten thousand tolerant teachers, however, do not have the same media platform as one belligerent former foreign secretary who, in one newspaper column last week, managed to stir up enough racial tension to keep citizenship teachers busy for some time.

Ignoring the fact that he wasn’t supposed to take a paid role so soon after leaving government office, Boris Johnson ploughed into controversial territory about Islamic dress.

In a rant he hasn’t apologised for, he referred to women wearing the burka as having the appearance of ‘bank robbers’ and looking like ‘letterboxes.’

If I developed a lesson which included such phrases, I don’t think I would have much to complain about when hauled through disciplinary hearings.

Should I hear a child in my form making those comments to Muslim peers, I would throw the rule book at them and expect them to be excluded from school for a period due bullying.

The comments are extremely unhelpful and unravel so much hard work done by teachers promoting tolerance in our society; one fear is that the former foreign secretary’s words give children and parents the sense that this language towards Muslims is being normalised.

Boris Johnson has the right to his opinion and there is an important need to uphold free speech. There is an important debate to be had around whether members of our society should be allowed to keep most of their face covered in public and the equality of women.

These are two issues that can be addressed in school classrooms as part of a discussion-based approach.

What is not acceptable is framing debate within childish name-calling, which is what Boris Johnson seems to take delight in.

It has no place in schools.

It should certainly not be entertained by former government ministers who should set an example and be a role model rather than providing a catalyst for Islamophobia.

Surprisingly, Rowan Atkinson defended Johnson by saying he had the right to make jokes about any religion.

Jokes are one thing – we should defend the right of comics to poke fun and be satirical.

But Boris Johnson is somebody who represented this country on a world stage; his comments are close to official government soundbites.

Citizenship teachers will take up the challenge and face racism and islamophobia head-on in the classroom.