The Teaching of Islamophobic Content Raises Concerns at Batley Grammar School
Wednesday March 31 2021
Earlier this week, it emerged that during a year 9 religious studies class, the topic of blasphemy was taught at Batley Grammar School in which an Islamophobic caricature of the Prophet Mohammad (SAW) illustrated by French publication, Charlie Hebdo, was displayed to a class of mainly Muslim students. The caricature entails an extremely offensive cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad (SAW) with a bomb in his turban and the kalima (the Islamic declaration of faith) written on it. The instant implication of this caricature is the linking of Islam, and therefore Muslims, with terrorism, thereby activating offensive and derogatory tropes about Muslim communities.
This incident has raised significant concerns amongst Muslim parents and pupils across the country regarding issues of safeguarding and targeting of Muslim minorities within educational environments.
Recent days have thus seen protests and intense media frenzy surrounding the children, staff, school, and parents in question. The event has led to protests by parents and relatives, threats to remove children from the school, and counter-statements from the Department for Education against the “intimidation of teachers”.
Indeed, this frenzy has been accompanied by the release of the teacher’s name on social media. MEND condemns these actions unequivocally and calls for consideration of the safety of the staff member involved. Whilst there is undoubtedly a need to support the parents and children in engaging with the school and ensuring that all teaching materials and classroom discussions are appropriate, these efforts must be approached with sensitivity and an understanding of the potential consequences for all individuals, as well as the repercussions for the local community. We, therefore, feel compelled to call on individuals or organisations to remove any and all public mentions in which the name of the teacher in question has been mentioned without delay.
At the same time, parents who are constructively engaging with the complaints process have been subject to abuse and threats. As such, the safety and wellbeing of these parents and children is also paramount. Constructive engagement through legitimate channels and the complaints process is a right of all parents that must be protected regardless of religious, ethnic, or other backgrounds.
MEND’s Islamophobia Response Unit (IRU) have been supporting concerned parents to engage directly with the school throughout the complaints process to ensure that all inappropriate resources are removed from teaching materials and that robust staff training mechanisms are in place.
Thus far, initial actions taken by the school include:
- An unequivocal and sincere apology from the school and staff member involved,
- Assurances to remove this resource from the religious studies materials,
- Announcing a formal review of the religious studies curriculum to remove any other inappropriate resources or statements,
- An assurance to work with communities moving forward,
- And the suspension of the staff member involved, pending an independent formal investigation.
The IRU is continuing to assist parents in this matter to achieve further positive outcomes, including:
- A review of the whole curriculum and staff training process to ensure this does not occur again,
- And ensuring that the school share findings of the investigation with concerned parents, local community, and concerned individuals.
However, the case as a whole represents the inherent issues with using offensive and hateful content (regardless of the intention) within a supposedly safe educational setting, thereby contradicting the duty of care which schools have for their students.
Beyond the deliberate display of the image of the Prophet (SAW), which is in itself problematic and deeply offensive, the image in question openly reinforces negative imagery of Muslims, framing Islam as linked to terrorism using a stereotype that has been a consistent feature of Islamophobia. Definitions of Islamophobia specifically cite “the myth of Muslim identity having a unique propensity for terrorism” as representing a means of creating “dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Muslims”. Indeed, it is notable that many media reports of this story deliberately omit this important fact and suggest that it is was just an ‘innocent’ cartoon that was shared, thereby portraying Muslims objecting to this as unreasonable and oversensitive.
Meanwhile, many have mobilised around the mantel of “freedom of speech” in defence of allowing such materials within classrooms. However, freedom of speech is not absolute. It should not mean freedom from consequence and should not be used to insult or to target minorities. Such grossly inflammatory images have a track record of creating community polarisation, conflict, and enabling violent attacks against Muslims by the far-right.
Moreover, there must be consideration of the impact that such images have on Muslim students and how it may impact the way that they perceive and interact with their educational environment. Schools have a duty of care when teaching young people under the Equality Act 2010, to ensure that students of all backgrounds are learning in a safe and supportive setting. Additional safeguards should be in place to prevent discrimination against minorities under the Human Rights Act 1998. Considering the already high levels of Islamophobic bullying in schools, the use of such materials and particularly the direct linking of Muslims to acts of violence can only exacerbate the challenges that Muslim children face.
Concerns have, therefore, been raised about the educational value that such content plays in the study of religions, and how hate speech which targets religious minorities can be deemed necessary for such a lesson. Indeed, freedom of speech can never be considered to override the wellbeing and safeguarding concerns for minority students.
In the last few days, the Headteacher of the school, Gary Kibble, has apologised “unequivocally” for the instance, stating that the member of staff involved has been suspended pending an investigation, and that they have “immediately withdrawn teaching on this part of the course and we are reviewing how we go forward with the support of all the communities represented in our school”. He underlined the school’s commitment to Religious Studies, stating that “It is important for children to learn about faiths and beliefs, but this must be done in a sensitive way”.
This has been a welcome acknowledgement and MEND now calls on all schools and educators to ensure that teaching materials and classroom practices foster a safe and inclusive environment. Freedom of speech should never be prioritised over the safeguarding and wellbeing of students, and this must be reflected within teaching materials and classroom practice. MEND’s Islamophobia Response Unit will continue to work and support both the parents and Batley Grammar School in following due process and ensuring a harmonious resolution.