Religion, Tolerance & Freedom – What Private Views Can A Teacher Express?


I recently had the dubious privilege of presenting the case for the teaching regulator (the National College for Teaching and Leadership) against a teacher accused of telling a class of sixth-form girls that he was ‘allergic to Mohammedans’ and that all Muslims worshipped the devil, among other things. The registrant was employed temporarily to teach history and the subject of the relevant lessons was the Crusades.

Although he claimed to have been playing the role of a mediaeval Crusader when he made these remarks, it appeared to the students that he was expressing his current, personal opinions and the Professional Conduct Panel found this to be the case. He was subsequently prohibited from teaching by the Secretary of State for education on the Panel’s recommendation.

The case raised important questions of principle. As the Panel observed in making their decision, “Teachers are at all times role models and are expected to act with integrity, demonstrating impartiality and not allowing personal views and beliefs to intrude into their teaching.”

The Panel made it clear that the case was not about the political or personal religious views of the teacher or his right to hold them nor the right to academic freedom. Any individual, whatever their profession, is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 9 and 10) and, indeed, at common law.

The registrant was fully entitled to express such views at meetings of the British National Party (that he addressed in his role as a party member and a Parliamentary candidate in the general election) and anywhere else – as long as he did not incite racial hatred by doing so. However, when he crossed the boundary of the classroom and shared those views with his pupils, telling them that they were correct in his role as a teacher, he failed to demonstrate the respect for the British values of tolerance and respect for the faiths and beliefs of others that the Teachers’ Standards demand.

In the course of cross-examination, the registrant at first declined to answer questions about whether he actually believed that Muslims worshipped the devil, on the grounds that this would be an infringement of his freedom of religion. He later reconsidered and agreed that that was his view of orthodox Christian doctrine. He had studied theology extensively and claimed the style of Reverend.

This case involved teaching in a non-denominational state school and parallel issues are likely to feature in the cases arising out of the Trojan Horse enquiry into Birmingham schools. An interesting question, though, is whether the position would be any different in a faith school. I would suggest not since the Teachers’ Standards (Part 2) apply equally.

Even in a faith school, the teaching of religion must now be conducted in a way, which is respectful of faiths different from that being taught. It may be a challenge for some to teach ‘This is what we believe, it is the word of God and the truth’ without denigrating the beliefs of others, at least by implication. Those who follow different faiths or none, might be at best mistaken and at worst damned for all eternity, according to the dogma of the school’s faith, but the pupils must be encouraged to respect and tolerate their difference.

The prohibition of intolerance in the field of education is a minimal and proportionate interference with the right of freedom of expression. It is critically important to foment the opening, rather than the closing, of developing minds as a basic defence against extremism. Our system of justice holds the balance between those who believe that there is a Higher Law than that of the state and those who would not submit to what they find irrational. Both the faithful and those who value the right to differ must tolerate what they find disagreeable. The rule of law insists on tolerance not merely on liberal principle but because it is the best means of avoiding conflict.