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Extremism in school

18 October 2013

THE difficulty of inviting the whole class to a birthday party is the least of a school's worries. A note from the head teacher of Kingswood Prep School, Bath, touched only on invitations given out in class. It would be unchristian, he told parents, to exclude anyone. Parents, mostly from other schools, have expressed their views. This, however, has been a minor spat. Elsewhere, schools have found themselves on the country's religious faultline, confronting issues of custom and faith which society finds intractable. The latest incident involved two Muslim 14-year-olds excluded from Mount Carmel RC School, Accrington, in Lancashire, for starting to grow beards. The head teacher took advice and concluded that the beards were non-essential to Islam. More advice followed, and the boys were allowed back on condition that their decision to stop shaving was related to the Hafiz programme of Muslim instruction. In another example of Lancashire accommodation, Witton Park High School, Blackburn, closed for three days this week so that pupils, half of them non-Muslims, could celebrate Eid. Pupils had ended the summer holidays three days early to allow for this. At the time of writing, the Al-Madinah School in Derby was awaiting the publication of the emergency OFSTED report, after the resignation of a teacher who said she was pressured to wear a hijab, and tales that certain subjects had been banned. And inspectors are in negotiations with an Orthodox Jewish school in Hackney, London, where GCSE science papers are said to have been doctored to prevent pupils' answering questions about evolution.

The picture is confusing, inevitably, as schools attempt to find local solutions to a widespread set of challenges. It has been suggested that much of the confusion is caused by the poor grasp of Christianity now permeating the education world, which thus leaves a vacuum to be filled by other faiths and customs. Certainly, the teaching of religion, and Christianity in particular, has deteriorated very quickly, as highlighted by OFSTED last week. But Christianity ought not to seen as a bulwark against "alien" practices and beliefs. A strong Christian presence in a school ought, we believe, prompt an intelligent welcome to those of other religions who wish to express their faith in some way - just as the schools expect, and receive, approval from those of other faiths when they plan events from the Christian calendar, such as nativity plays. The likelihood is that national policy will be influenced by these particular local decisions: policy-making by case law. But it is hard to see any other way to proceed. Schools have different personalities, histories, pupil intakes, and so on, and are in the best place to judge when tolerance can be exercised and when uniformity needs to be enforced.

It would be dangerous if a school were unduly influenced by an extremist element within one of the faiths. But the recent attempt by the National Secular Society to discredit church schools because of a supposed extremist element was dismissed by a spokesman for the Education Secretary for lack of evidence. British schools are, on the whole, robust institutions, able to resist undue pressure from undemocratic forces.

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