PROFILE: Owen Jones – Challenging the rising hate in schools

Safya Khan-Ruf - 18 05 17

Banter is not just banter and racist jokes are not okay.

These are some of the issues that Owen Jones discusses with students everyday across the country. At a time when hate incidents in schools are rocketing (according to one recent survey), the head of education for HOPE not hate travels the length and breadth of the UK to teach young people about day-to-day prejudice, discriminatory language, signs of radicalisation and to discuss society’s shared values.

Discussing discrimination

Jones uses a variety of techniques in his classes to keep students’ attention. The workshops – usually taught to sets of 11 – 15-year-olds – combine games and discussions to explore topics such as inequality, explaining that it often starts at birth and can become ’embedded’ within (parts of) society.

“We challenge the class on how they could – even unwittingly – be contributing to these inequalities and prejudices without realising,” Jones says.

He adds that student replies allow him to tailor how he presents the workshop and how far he challenges issues. In one Year 7 class at King Harold Academy in Essex, students were torn on whether a discriminatory joke was fine “just between friends”. However, a Year 10 class receiving the workshop on the same day were unanimous in calling that joke unacceptable: “It’s just wrong,” one student shrugged.

Discussion points during the workshop

Jones, also from Essex, says the areas he works in really impact the discussions he has with students.

“I’m less likely to have problems with racism in schools around cities but homophobia might still be a big problem there.”

In many isolated areas, people “view the outside world through the television,” according to Jones, which can exacerbate some prejudices while reducing others.

The examples he employs to tackle these issues often elicit strong responses. He uses topics close to students’ hearts, such as football, to ask why people use a phrase such as “you throw like a girl”.

Jones’ Socratic method of questioning for football led to a spirited discussion at the King Harold Academy, with one young girl demanding to know why “women got paid less in football when they can play just as well as men”.

Pyramid of Hate

Using the Pyramid of Hate (above), Jones teaches how certain phrases reinforce stereotypes and normalise prejudice. The students are encouraged to stop using discriminatory language but also to challenge their friends to do the same.

Complex challenge

HOPE not hate has been working with young people for many years, but its education workshops officially began last January and have received an 80% score on the net promoter, a management tool to gauge satisfaction.

In addition to teaching students, Jones’ team also trains teachers in tackling these subjects themselves and spotting fake news. Teacher-focused workshops cover the British far right, how to approach students who might have been in contact with the far right online, and recognising signs of radicalisation. Jones says most teachers are eager to learn but that some in rural areas might see the issues as less pressing.

The education team are very careful not to debate politics in the workshops. “We’re trying not to look like a PC brigade,” Jones explains wryly.

Staying away from politics is especially important to Jones, as his focus is on tackling discrimination, rather than (for example) debating Brexit in areas with bitterly different political views.

His balancing act in addressing sensitive topics is complicated by some parents’ politics and casual hate speech students can hear at home. “We’re not just dealing with students, it’s also coming from parents,” he says.

King Harold Academy, in Waltham Abbey, Essex
Rising issue

Despite the challenges, Jones is determined to sensitise children to prejudice and discrimination before it’s too late. Hate crimes in classrooms have risen sharply across England according to police figures.

Data obtained by the Times Educational Supplement from 30 police forces under Freedom of Information laws revealed that hate incidents increased by 89% in May 2016 compared to May 2015.

There have also been warnings of rising bigoted behaviour among pupils by the National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) last month.

A survey of ATL members showed that more than 20% of teachers had noticed hate crime or hate speech incidents during the past academic year and 17% believed it was a growing trend among students.

Some have attributed the rise of hate incidents in schools to the normalisation of racist speech by politicians during the EU referendum and Donald Trump’s election.

Jones does not seem daunted by these issues. In fact, he says that there’s a big demand for the workshops and sensitising students to these issues has to happen as early and fast as possible.

“We know this is vital work and very relevant to the pressures of our times. We’re funded until the end of this year, but are hoping we can extend that and take the project forwards to its true potential.”

To find out more about HOPE not hate’s education work, or to book Jones’ team, email [email protected]


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