Apology or Empty Appeasement? A Scottish Council apologises for lesson on Palestine

by Brenda Heard

A Scottish primary school recently offered a crude lesson to students when teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The questionable homework assignment became public knowledge and complaints ensued.  The subsequent actions of the council governing the school show two things: (1) the public can make a difference, and (2) we still have a long way to go in order to move beyond a black and white vision of this issue.  I’ve written the following note to the council and cc’d the school.  Posted below is the North Lanarkshire Council’s response.

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I am very disturbed about the recent reports of the homework on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was given to students at New Stevenson Primary School.

As the shock and disgust at the assignment itself is now settling amongst concerned citizens, it seems we are meant to accept the apology issued by the North Lanarkshire Council.

The apology statement from North Lanarkshire Council’s Learning and Leisure Services is nonsensical.  It concedes that this particular assignment was “inappropriate,” yet maintains that the teaching of this social studies topic “does not pass any judgement on the subject.”  If the author of this statement cannot see the judgement in this assignment, then it is indeed worrisome that he/she works in the field of education.  The statement does not even admit that the Council may have missed the mark in this instance by such a phrase as “the aim is to not pass judgement.”  No, the apology says “This topic [not the general social studies ‘programme,’ but ‘this topic,’ presumably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] aims to gives pupils a greater understanding of the nature of different conflicts and their regional, global and historical significance and does not pass any judgement on the subject.” [emphasis added]  Even if the author intended to say that it was the programme (not the topic) that did not pass judgement, the teaching of this topic is still part of that programme, thus would be subject to the same criteria.  Given this assertion, the label “inappropriate” seems to indicate that the assignment was merely deemed politically incorrect.  In fact, the sentence of apology appears to have been so half-heartedly written that it omitted the “we”: “The description of Palestinian people is entirely inappropriate and [we] apologise unreservedly for the offence caused.”

The statement also seems to have missed the point of the complaints regarding the homework assignment.  Yes, it was offensive, and the Council is right to apologise for offending not just Palestinians, but also anyone who respects objectivity in social historical analysis.  The more serious issue, though, is that the information provided to the students is misleading, grossly over-simplified and overtly biased.  Students within the North Lanarkshire Council system are not being taught to be intellectually self-reliant; they are being unduly influenced by a political agenda.  The most serious issue yet is that students are being taught not to understand, but to label and to hate.

This particular assignment is being brushed aside as an obsolete lesson subject to recall.  But what of the students’ education?  What of the judgement exercised by the teachers and administrative staff that allowed the assignment?  It would seem that students who received this piece of homework did not receive accurate, balanced guidance in understanding world conflicts.  Unless their classroom teacher corrected its message, then the students remain uninformed and misled.  It is highly unlikely that the teacher did so, however, else he/she would have reported the unsuitable assignment to administration and declined to distribute it.  If this assignment is obsolete, what is the level of objectivity in its replacement?

This situation raises the concern that additional teaching materials are likewise unsuitable and that school staff are exercising poor judgement in allowing these materials to remain.  The Council has an obligation to its students and its community:

1)      To provide a suitable lesson on the topic to re-educate and to correct the misconceptions taught by this assignment

2)      To thoroughly investigate the extent of this failing of social studies instruction

3)      To improve the faulty teaching materials and to rectify the personnel management of those materials

4)      To make public the teaching materials used on this and similar sensitive topics

This problem is by no means restricted to the North Lanarkshire Council.  It is hoped that other Councils, as well as the UK  and Scottish Departments for Education, will likewise review their methods for teaching this topic.

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I write in relation to the homework allocated to a primary seven class from New Stevenson Primary School on Thursday 4th March. The topic being discussed in class was part of the social studies programme: ‘People, Past Events and Societies’ including conflict situations around the world.  This important Curriculum for Excellence topic aims to give pupils a greater understanding of the nature of different conflicts and their regional, global and historical significance.

On this occasion however, the pupils were issued with a poorly crafted piece of homework that failed to present the balanced view of conflict that the Council and Learning & Leisure Service would have expected. On behalf of the Council and Service I would like to apologise unreservedly for this error in judgment and the offence it caused.  I can assure you we are in the process of carrying out a full investigation to ensure that all curriculum materials available to teachers on this subject area are appropriately written, balanced and objective.

The particular piece issued has been removed from the school and we have also checked that it is not in place in any other educational establishment. I can also report the Leader of the Council, Jim McCabe, has expressed his concern about what happened and asked for a full explanation and guarantee of no repetition. We have issued such a guarantee.

North Lanarkshire Council prides itself on equality, fairness tolerance and understanding. We are hugely disappointed that this matter has occurred and will endeavour to work with appropriate representatives in order to reinforce our message of compassion for the Palestinian community.

I hope that this apology can be accepted and you are assured of our best intentions

 

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Sutherland

Executive Director

Learning and Leisure Services

 

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