The Israel-Palestine conflict is a polarising issue that is creating division within the UK and threatening wider cohesion.
Antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crimes have skyrocketed, with both Muslim and Jewish communities fearful for their safety. Within wider society, increasingly polarised attitudes towards the conflict are escalating division, with potentially devastating and long term consequences for community cohesion. With our experience providing education and workshops in schools around racism, HOPE not hate polled teachers to find out how they are handling issues arising amongst pupils and whether they feel confident to deal with them.
This division is also playing out amongst children and young people in schools.
We polled 4,646 secondary school teachers on 29th January 2024. Over half (52%) reported that children in their schools have been discussing the conflict in Israel and Gaza.
Worryingly, approximately one fifth of teachers are documenting negative consequences on pupils’ emotions and behaviour as a result of the conflict. Pupils are distressed (22%) and angry (21%), causing arguments with other students (18%). This includes antisemitic (11%) and Islamophobic (7%) behaviour.
These findings are all heightened for schools in deprived areas, measured by the proportion of students eligible to receive free school meals. Here, teachers are almost twice as likely to report arguments between students over the conflict (26% versus 15% for the most affluent schools). Similarly explaining the increased reporting in London (26% of teachers in London reported pupils arguing about the conflict versus 18% national average), this is likely due to the higher prevalence of ethnic minority students within these schools.
Teachers are not well equipped or confident in their ability to deal with these issues.
Schools have a duty to promote social cohesion, and are uniquely placed to do so, but the Israel-Palestine conflict is a clear blocker to this. We have identified a significant gap in teachers’ abilities to address the divisions that are arising in classrooms over the conflict.
Only half of teachers polled feel confident in addressing the issues emerging with students. This confidence is lowest amongst classroom teachers at the lowest seniority.
A significant gap in resources and guidance is causing this. Less than half of the teachers (42%) polled believe their school is willing to appropriately address these emerging issues and only 11% say their school has the resources to support them in doing so. There is a lack of support for less senior teachers in particular; only 3% of classroom teachers report having had training to deal with sensitive issues like this.
Crucially, this is a time sensitive issue.
The rifts being created between students are self-reinforcing, as like any divisive issue they reward increasingly extreme positioning. The longer this issue is left untreated, the less effective nuanced and collaborative discussions required to mediate tensions become. This will have long term consequences on interpersonal relationships between students, and cohesion both within the school and wider community.
Government support and guidance for teachers must go further.
Current advice for schools on how to approach conversations about Israel and Palestine is not sufficient. It signposts resources about extremism and terrorism but notably lacks usable instruction for nuanced and legitimate conversation. It also does not recognise the different ways that these issues are arising in schools, not just in conversations in classrooms but also posts on social media, requests for fundraising initiatives, badges being worn, and questions from parents.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a need for teachers to have the skills and be empowered to navigate difficult conversations in schools, not just on this current conflict but other divisive issues that increasingly feature in our society. The Government has a duty to provide usable guidance on how teachers should be addressing these issues as they arise in a way that is productive, yet still safe, impartial and adhering to existing duties.
The Department for Education and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities must work collaboratively to tackle this problem together. Any strategy to address cohesion within schools must integrate into the Government’s wider strategy of mitigating the impact that the conflict is having on wider community relations.
Drawing on the expertise of organisations like HOPE not hate who have in-depth understanding of how external events can be exploited for hateful purposes and used to deepen divides is crucial for developing strategies for intervention. Collaborating with teachers, school leaders, faith groups, and education and cohesion experts, will create targeted and thoughtful solutions.
Investing in skills for dialogue
There is a clear gap in resources available to teach students to have respectful dialogue and civil discourse about sensitive or controversial topics in general, beyond just this specific context. These skills are currently only being practised in secondary school Citizenship classes and occasionally English and PSHE lessons, with very little offered at primary and Further Education levels.
Funding for relevant and age appropriate resources to ensure these skills for productive dialogue are proactively embedded across the curriculum would better equip students to engage in conversations around sensitive topics.
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