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The Unsafe Space debates

A strand of debates at the Telegraph Festival of Education organised by the IoI Education Forum.

10:00am, Friday 24 June 2016, Wellington College, Duke's Ride, Crowthorne, West Berkshire RG45 7PU

The Telegraph Festival of Education, hosted by Wellington College, brings together the very best of education’s most forward thinking advocates, practitioners of change and policy makers.

This year, the IoI Education Forum is hosting a series of debates on a wide range of subjects of interest to educators. Join us!



‘You can’t say that!’ and ‘That’s offensive!’ are now among the most commonly uttered phrases in schools. Not long ago, trigger warnings, curbs on free speech, demands for safe spaces and self-imposed censorship were largely issues confined to the university. Today, however, the mantra `that is offensive` increasingly permeates not only sixth forms but the whole school.

How should we react to this turn of events? Is it a welcome development or are we creating a generation of fragile students who increasingly take offence at the drop of a hat? Is there a danger that however well-intentioned, an emphasis on vulnerability, mental health, self-esteem and anti-bullying initiatives is doing more harm than good and producing a generation of cotton-wool kids who are too easily offended? From debates about Charlie Hebdo, free speech, immigration, transgender, ‘rape culture’ and consent, it seems that many pupils now hold back from saying what they really think lest someone takes offence.

But who is right? Do we need to be more sensitive when it comes to protecting our young people from potentially harmful ideas which may cause psychological hurt and trauma? Or, are we in danger of creating a generation of thin-skinned youth too easily offended and over protected? In short, what are the limits, if any, when it comes to free speech in schools? Do teachers and students alike have the right to be offensive?

Phil Beadle, education consultant; teacher; author, Rules for Mavericks
Claire Fox, director, IoI; panelist BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find that Offensive
Ian Morris, head of well-being, Wellington College; author Teaching Happiness and Well-being in Schools
Deana Puccio, founder of The RAP Project, former Assistant District Attorney, New York City, member of Sex Crimes/Special Victims Unit, Brooklyn

Kevin Rooney,
convenor, IoI Education Forum; politics teacher and head of social science, Queen’s School, Bushey; co-author, Who’s Afraid Of The Easter Rising?


Recently, the government has introduced a statutory requirement under the Prevent strategy that schools report expressions of extremism amongst their students. This requirement is made in the context of the ‘safeguarding agenda’, concerns about terrorism and Islamic extremism, in particular.

But why should teachers report any political or moral views that young people express in the classroom? Are schools as centres of learning and intellectual enquiry not the very places where we should allow a genuine clash of ideas that includes the expression of views that some might find extreme and offensive? Is there a danger that placing this statutory instruction on teachers effectively redefines them from educators to spies? If teachers start reporting students who express ‘extremist’ views, then why should their pupils trust them anymore? Is there a danger that the Prevent strategy merely drives such controversial views underground rather than allowing pupils to express opinions where they can be freely debated and challenged in the classroom? Is such a clash of ideas not exactly what a good education entails?

Furthermore, does a liberal, rounded education not aim to produce autonomous young citizens capable of thinking for themselves? If so, shouldn’t pupils be free to reach unethical and extreme conclusions if they wish? Finally, what exactly is an ‘extremist’ as opposed to an `acceptable` view and who decides?

Rania Hafez,
senior lecturer in education & Community Studies and Programme Leader for the MA Education, University of Greenwich; founder, Muslim Women in Education
Terry James, headteacher, Queens’ School,  Bushey
Zubeda Limbada, director, ConnectJustice; Clore Social fellow 2014/15
Toby Marshall, FE lecturer in social theory; PhD researcher in sociology education, UCL Institute of Education
Liz Watts research director, EdComs

Kevin Rooney,
convenor, IoI Education Forum; politics teacher and head of social science, Queen’s School, Bushey; co-author, Who’s Afraid Of The Easter Rising?


According to the National Association of Head Teachers, one fifth of primary-school children have a mental illness. Alongside this, according to recent reports, we are entering a mental-health crisis among older pupils, with secondary schools unable to cope. The charity Young Minds states, ‘these shocking statistics should act as a wake-up call to everyone who cares about the welfare of young people’. Concern about the rate of teenage suicides and a sharp rise in self-harm and eating disorders are cited as proof of a growing crisis. Campaigners are warning the government of a mental-health ‘timebomb’ facing young adults unless we act now.

But is there really as big a problem as some claim, or are some teaching unions and mental health charities exaggerating the problem? Are we in danger of medicalising the everyday problems of teenage anxiety, misuse of alcohol and drug-taking which, while not desirable, are a normal part of growing up? Are schools now conflating everyday instances of unhappiness with more severe mental distress?

How do we distinguish fact from fiction in the mental-health discussion when there appears to be no consensus on how we define mental illness? With growing confusion over the best way to raise, educate and discipline children, are we witnessing the projection of adult anxieties on to children?

Rachel Kelly, ambassador, SANE; vice president, United Response; contributor, The Times, Daily Telegraph
Dr Pooky Knightsmith director, Children Young People & Schools Programme, Charlie Waller Memorial Trust
Ken McLaughlin, senior lecturer in social work, Manchester Metropolitan University; author, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the psychology of recognition and Empowerment: A critique
Gareth Sturdy, project co-ordinator, The Physics Factory


Kevin Rooney,
convenor, IoI Education Forum; politics teacher and head of social science, Queen’s School, Bushey; co-author, Who’s Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

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