UK secondary school educators call for teaching Palestine-Israel conflict

Parallel Histories advocates for an interactive approach to studying conflict.
Thursday 05/07/2018
Sensitive topic. British educators attend House of Lords meeting to discuss teaching Palestine-Israel conflict in secondary schools. (Parallel Histories)
Sensitive topic. British educators attend House of Lords meeting to discuss teaching Palestine-Israel conflict in secondary schools. (Parallel Histories)

LONDON - Pressure is increasing on British education authorities to teach the Palestine-Israel conflict in secondary schools following a meeting at the House of Lords to discuss the issue.

“Of the 250,000 students taking GCSE history this summer, less than 1% will have studied Israel and Palestine and not a single one will have studied Balfour and the British Mandate,” said Michael Davies, a history teacher and the creator of Parallel Histories.

Parallel Histories, which bills itself as a new way to study conflict, is being taught across 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States and France. However, in the United Kingdom it is confined mostly to private schools that are not teaching the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which has a history syllabus that shies away from dealing with the conflict, reportedly over fears that it could lead to division in the classroom.

However, a meeting at the House of Lords, hosted by Lord Leslie Turnberg on June 11 and attended by education leaders from across the country, discussed the issue, putting pressure on British education policymakers to change the syllabus and teach the conflict.

“The fact that we had peers from all main parties as well as representatives from advocacy groups on both sides of the argument suggests a broad consensus that we need to stop ignoring this in schools. It’s been hard to get the government’s attention on this issue so far but we are building pressure and Lord Turnberg and others have been very helpful,” Davies said.

At a time when fears of self-radicalisation are high, critics say the best way to ensure that correct information reaches students is through formal teaching of difficult subjects.

“The problem is that if you do not teach the conflict that does not mean that Muslim pupils ignore it. What it means is that young Muslims will learn about the conflict from other sources, [such as] out-of-school religious establishments known as madrassas, internet websites and chat rooms,” warned Mohammed Amin, head of research charity group Curriculum for Cohesion.

“Teaching the Israel-Palestine conflict presents many challenges in the classroom. However, not teaching the conflict is downright dangerous because it leaves Muslim pupils vulnerable to radicalisation.”

That call was echoed by Jewish educators, including Spencer Lewis, head teacher of the Yavneh Schools.

“It is essential, I think, that British schools do not avoid sensitive or difficult topics… Educating about the Middle East and Israel in particular will ensure that young people have the knowledge and tools to see things as they are and to tackle misunderstanding and bias,” he said.

Davies drew parallels between how the conflict is taught in France, compared to how it is being failed to be taught in the United Kingdom.

“The history of Israel and Palestine is a mandatory part of the curriculum [in France] in the last year at school. Given that France is the European country with both the largest number of Jewish and Muslim citizens, the French government has perhaps been quicker than the UK government to grasp the importance of good teaching about the Middle East,” he said.

Parallel Histories advocates for an interactive approach to studying conflict, presenting studies with competing historical narratives and forcing students to engage with the historical material to form their own opinions, rather than learning and reciting a sanitised “balanced view.”

“There’s an opportunity here as well as the problem. The Middle East is a wonderful subject to teach. It’s got everything, religion, imperialism, socialism, nationalism, colourful characters and controversy. A discussion of the history of the Middle East always arouses passion. You don’t get that with the Tudors and that level of engagement is a great teaching opportunity,” Davies said.