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Monday, 8 October, 2001, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Head reassures Muslim pupils
Kabul, Afghanistan
Images of war have made some pupils feel isolated
By BBC News Online's Katherine Sellgren

A head teacher has told his Muslim pupils to "hold their heads high" and not to feel intimidated out of wearing traditional dress.

Bob Dowling, head of the racially-mixed George Dixon secondary school and sixth form in Edgbaston, Birmingham, said that some pupils were afraid they might suffer from a backlash, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States.


By telling children not to wear their headscarves, what are we telling them? That they're not good enough as they are

Bob Dowling
"A lot of the pupils - mainly the Muslim ones - were beginning to feel they were responsible for the situation and I do blame the media for that.

"So I talked to them about Northern Ireland and how I'm an Irish Catholic, but that that doesn't mean I have anything to do with IRA attacks.

"The majority of Irish people don't plant bombs and shoot people in the knees, but I explained that I get tarred with the same brush - and the kids can relate to that."

Mr Dowling said he was aware of fear among his pupils.

"The kids were genuinely scared - there was a fear the community was under siege and all those who weren't white would be targeted," he said.

Abuse

The head of 25 years said some of his pupils had been verbally abused, but he stressed it was important that something they might normally shrug off did not become an issue because of current events.

"Some of my girls who wear headscarves were called names in town the other day by what we call lager louts.

"Now I told them that they might have picked on me because I'm Irish or on someone else because they didn't like the look of them.

"Prejudice will find a different hat tomorrow," he said.

Muslim dress

Mr Dowling said pupils should not be made to feel ashamed of who they are and, Muslim girls in particular, should not be encouraged to discard their traditional dress.

US Air Force warplane
Talk of World War Three frightens children, say Mr Dowling
"They should carry on wearing their head coverings - and I tell them to hold their heads up high and not to feel they have to change who they are.

"By telling children not to wear their headscarves, what are we telling them? That they're not good enough as they are.

"And how children view themselves is very important," he said.

"If they don't wear their normal dress, they're just letting the terrorists win," he added.

Who's who?

Mr Dowling said there had been tensions at his school, which is 96% non-white with pupils from all religious backgrounds and from up to 40 different countries including the West Indies, Africa, Russia and South America.

"There was some tension between Sikh and Muslim pupils - now that goes back hundreds of years, but there's always an excuse.

"So I got six pupils - Sikhs and Muslims - to stand up in assembly and I asked two new pupils to the school to tell us which was which and they couldn't.

"I told them all what they were up against was prejudice and that they mustn't add to that prejudice.

"Goodwill is a choice and bad will is a choice and we have the power to exercise that choice," he said.

Sense of proportion

Mr Dowling believes it is important for schools not to over-react to the international situation and to keep a sense of proportion.

"When kids hear things about World War Three and chemical warfare, they get frightened - and they're picking it up from adults.

"It's a mistake to get too complex about it, kids need pragmatic answers and something they can understand," he said.

Mr Dowling's advice to other teachers and heads is simple.

"Keep it in perspective, but don't deny it's happening. And keep it real so they can relate to it."

See also:

08 Oct 01 | Education
Today's assembly is about war
18 Sep 01 | Education
What did we tell the children?
17 Sep 01 | Features
Through the eyes of children
19 Sep 01 | Education
Children taught 'reality' of disaster
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