Teaching controversial issues

The National Curriculum lays down the expectation that young  people should have the opportunity to explore controversial issues. It is clear that the place of Islam in British society is a question of fundamental importance. It is not only the English Defence League (EDL) that believes that 'the proponents of radical Islam have a stranglehold on British Muslims'. Conservative Party Chairman, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, has asserted that prejudice against Muslims has 'passed the dinner-table test' and become socially acceptable. Since 9/11 Islam and terrorism have become synonymous and a YouGov survey reveals a widespread belief that Muslims contribute little to Britain.

Schools should be at the forefront of challenging Islamophobia – the 'the fear and/or hatred of Islam, Muslims or Islamic culture and history' – as part of their preparation for being active global citizens who are able to make sense of the complexities of the 21st century.

This portal aims to encourage schools to explore ways in which the whole curriculum can provide opportunities to tell another story about the myriad ways in which our lives have been enriched by Islamic science, culture and values over the centuries. It provides teachers with resources to explore this hidden history and overcome their natural reluctance to open an uncontrollable can-of-worms by allowing young people to discuss their fears and beliefs in order to present alternative perspectives and hopefully change attitudes.


At the same time as acknowledging the benefits of raising controversial issues in the classroom, you will need particular teaching skills to prevent reinforcing stereotypes, raising tension between pupils or increasing confusion.

You will need to find approaches that meet the need for balance and objectivity and to ensure that you avoid bias. Those which you choose will match your confidence and experience as well as the maturity and skills of your pupils. You might plan a topic to raise controversy or controversy may arise unexpectedly – you will need to be prepared for both.

Young people are likely to express a wide range of responses when confronted with controversial questions. Their different experiences, learning styles and emotional intelligence levels can lead to different reactions.

Oxfam GB Teaching controversial issues, 2006