The murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, beheaded by Abdullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, 18, in October 2020 after Paty showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a civic education class, naturally caused shock and fear among teachers in France.
Many teachers were already struggling to manage classroom discussions on sensitive topics such as the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s publication of controversial cartoons. Some now fear for their personal safety.
My doctoral research explores the impact of Islamist terrorism on the politics and practice of education in England and France. As I come to the end of my study, these events give rise to an unwanted sense of déjà vu.
Controversy and criticism
My interest in the subject began with the terrorist attacks on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015 after the publication of the cartoons. Interviews that I have conducted over the past three years show that these cartoons continue to cause shock and anger among some Muslim students. This leads to difficult times in the classroom for teachers.
In the first week of school after Paty’s murder, some 400 students from across France were reported to the Ministry of Education for refusing to participate in the minute of silence in his honor.
Since Paty’s assassination, there has been a lot of talk about France’s “color blind” approach to cultural diversity, which emphasizes that the same rights apply to all citizens. This is often seen as contrary to the multiculturalism of countries like the UK, which gives more space to minority cultures and religions.
French President Emmanuel Macron responded to international criticism of his government’s response to the attacks by insisting on the singularity of the French approach, and the inability of Anglo-Saxon commentators to understand it.
However, this ignores the striking similarities in how the English and French governments have used the education system as a tool to promote social cohesion and build the resilience of young people to radicalization.
The governments of both countries have sought to emphasize shared values in the education system. Since 2014, English schools have been required to promote the ‘core British values’ of democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom, mutual respect and tolerance towards people of different faiths.
In French schools, there has been a renewed interest in promoting the republican values of freedom, equality, fraternity and the secular value of secularism – which limits the expression of religious beliefs in public institutions. such as schools – since the January 2015 attacks.
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Other policies in both countries target students who may be at risk of radicalization. Teachers are expected to report concerns about radicalization to the school administration or to outside agencies. Education professionals are also trained to detect signs of radicalization, although this approach is more widely used in the UK than in France.
The issues raised by atrocities such as Paty’s murder also have implications for how teachers operate in the classroom in England and France.
In the case of France, the attacks against Charlie Hebdo highlighted the difficulties that some teachers were already encountering in managing discussions around issues such as secularism and freedom of expression.
In England, the need to engage students in discussions of contemporary issues within the framework of UK core values policy – and to help them make sense of the ongoing terrorist attacks – has exposed some of the same issues.
Teachers, school leaders and politicians in both countries frequently report that some teachers lack in-depth knowledge of the issues they are increasingly called upon to address in the classroom. In addition, many fear that they will not be able to deal with the emotional responses of students that sometimes elicit from sensitive topics and ultimately lose control of the situation.
This was of particular concern to some respondents in France, who felt that a tradition of teacher-centered learning – involving a lot of discussion with teachers and little time for discussion – meant that some of their colleagues were particularly nervous about handling class debates.
In England, the decreasing importance of citizenship education in the English education system limits the possibilities of engagement with civic values and contemporary issues. This has been compounded, as one school head pointed out, by the lack of in-depth guidance from the government on how to promote core British values.
My research shows that teachers need to be better prepared for these difficult conversations. This preparation should take place through initial teacher training and continuing professional development.
This training already exists in certain regions of France and England. In some regions of France, teacher educators work closely with teams of teachers for long periods of time on topics such as discussion and debate, students’ religious beliefs and discussions with young people about terrorism .
At a secondary school I visited in London, teachers collaboratively plan and teach Citizenship Education Days. This provides teachers with some support in dealing with difficult times.
My research participants also emphasized the importance of teachers showing respect to their students in these conversations. Some school leaders and teacher trainers in France felt that teachers’ own beliefs and the way they expressed them in class debates could contribute to some of the heated confrontations that have made headlines.
It seems that teachers in both countries are not immune to a wider climate of anxiety around Islam and suspicion towards Muslim populations. This can lead teachers to engage in certain conversations with some hostility.
This message should be delivered with care. In a context where teachers may fear for their safety, it is important that these warnings are not seen as critical. At the same time, it would be unfortunate if the horrific murder of Samuel Paty made it impossible to debate some of the pressing issues at the heart of these challenges.