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The Khan social cohesion review: What schools need to know

Ministers should legislate for a 150-metre “buffer zone” to prevent protests directly outside schools and better support leaders facing “flashpoints”, the government-commissioned Khan review has said.

The Khan Review of social cohesion warned “numerous intimidatory protests outside schools” had left “teaching staff and pupils frightened”.

Michael Gove

Schools also face a lack of guidance on how to teach contentious issues, prompting fears teachers will “shy away” from some topics.

Levelling-up secretary Michael Gove said Dame Sara Khan was “right about the need for new government architecture to protect our democracy and tackle threats to cohesion. Rapid work is currently underway that will do just that.

“I will publish the government’s full response to the Khan Review before Parliament rises for the summer break.”

Here’s what we learned.

1. Publish figures on scale of teacher harassment

The review found a “wide-spread phenomenon of extreme forms of harassment leading individuals into silence, self-censoring, or abandoning their democratic rights”.

Khan dubbed this “freedom-restricting harassment”, which “involves but is not limited to, acts of doxing, inciting hatred and violence against individuals and their families, sending death and rape threats, and other forms of threatening behaviour”.

This form of harassment and resultant censorship “is creating a ‘chilling impact’ on freedom of expression and other democratic freedoms”.

A poll conducted for the review found 44 per cent of respondents had witnessed this type of harassment online, and 44 per cent said they’d seen it in person.

Recommendation: Department for Education should collect and publish figures of the scale of targeting and harassment experienced by schools and teachers.

2. Batley RE teacher shows need for school protest buffer zone

The review warned victims of such harassment suffered “devastating impacts yet are often not treated as victims or offered the support they need”.

The impact on the religious studies teacher at Batley Grammar School – where the use of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad prompted protests and threats – “provides a harrowing example”.

The review found the teacher faced an “online and offline campaign of intimidation and abuse” including “incitement to violence against both him and his family”. He is understood to still be in hiding.

The teacher’s trauma was also “compounded by the lack of support and care by local agencies”.

“In failing to understand the seriousness of the incident, he was let down by all the agencies involved, most notably Kirklees Council, West Yorkshire Police and the Batley Multi Academy Trust.”

The trust said it was “disappointed by today’s report”, and did not “recognise much of what is in it, its description of the events, nor the characterisation of our school and community”. 

Recommendation: Legislate for a 150-metre buffer zone to prevent protests immediately outside schools, with the “possible exception of pickets relating to industrial action by school staff”.

3. Cohesion Unit would help solve ‘inadequate’ guidance

The review warned that “numerous intimidatory protests outside schools which have left teaching staff and pupils frightened”.

Many of the protests were “exploited by Muslim fundamentalist and extremist actors”.

These include the protests outside primary schools in Birmingham in 2019 and the protests outside Batley Grammar School in March 2021, “among others”.

The lack of national guidance and support for schools in advising how best to respond to such incidents “is inadequate”.

Such incidents can be “frightening and intimidating”. The Department for Education has a “crucial role to play in providing guidance and resources for headteachers and wider school leaders”.

Recommendation: Establish a Cohesion and Conflict Unit which brings together existing advice to schools “such as the teaching of fundamental British values, dealing with political impartiality and others”.

It would also provide “clearer guidance and resources on other areas of conflict including when protected characteristics conflict and other controversial issues”.

The unit should provide “better support and care for schools and teachers who find themselves being threatened and harassed”.

This should include “immediate support for those schools and teachers who are having to deal with flashpoint incidents”.

4. Better support teachers so they don’t ‘shy away’ from difficult issues

The review heard the “growing targeting of teachers and the teaching of controversial subjects beyond blasphemy is being increasingly viewed as too high risk”.

For example, witnesses said there was “little national guidance on teaching controversial issues often found in RS and personal, social, health and economic lessons”. They expressed concerns teachers would “shy away from such topics”.

This is “made worse by the lack of guidance on what should or should not be taught, what is optional and what is not”.

“The Department for Education cannot expect teachers to teach controversial issues without guidance and support if teachers then find themselves targeted or threatened.”

One example given was that the DfE recommended primary schools talk about LGBT issues, “without making it clear whether it was optional or not”. This was seized-upon by protesters.

Recommendation: The unit should issue guidance, training materials and resources to “support schools in teaching what it means to live in a diverse democracy, how to manage opposing and different opinions, how to debate well and the importance of critical thinking“.

5. Politicians ‘undermining social cohesion’

The review said previous cohesion reports had “shown how the action – or lack of action – taken by political leaders, has undermined social cohesion”.

This “continues to be a problem and concerns about divisive, inflammatory language and poor political leadership were raised time and again”.

The call for evidence raised “uneasiness about the inconsistent national policy approach to cohesion, where the political narrative of some within government was often seen as conflicting with the cohesion messaging it was trying to promote”.

Examples of this included politicians fuelling division in the UK “by engaging in so-called ‘culture wars’ for political benefits”.

“Evidence indicates that ‘culture war’ debates can polarise society, increase conflict, contribute to disinformation and undermine social cohesion.”

Recommendation: The new conflict unit should collect cohesion data to assess the progress of key cohesion indicators e.g segregation – ethnic and other – and other relevant issues.

6. Promised Ofsted powers did not emerge

The review also assessed the progress of the government’s 2019 “integrated communities action plan”.

It found that of 70 commitments, 14 were delivered, 14 were partially delivered or ongoing, 15 were not delivered or paused and the status of four commitments were “unknown”.

Furthermore, the government “did not strengthen the enforcement regime for independent schools or strengthen Ofsted’s powers in relation to unregistered schools as promised”.

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