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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 February 2007, 01:20 GMT
Was Muslim guidance reasonable?
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
Muslims demand "Taleban-style" conditions in our schools.

That was the Daily Express' version of new guidelines for schools from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

In fact, there was no reference that I could find to the Taleban anywhere in the report. Such are the dangers of polarising this debate by inflated language.

Indeed, the document stressed it was intended as "a source of reference" for schools when reviewing their policies in relation to Muslim pupils.

It set out to improve relations between communities.

Yet, what presumably upset the Express was the sheer length and detail of the requests that the MCB was making of schools.

The language was polite but there was a strong insistence that schools should adapt.

How reasonable were these requests? Were they, in fact, demands?

And how practicable is it to expect schools to adapt so many of their practices to meet the needs of, not just Muslim pupils, but other ethnic or religious minority groups?

Emphasis

This debate will beset head teachers, teachers and governors for some time.

This week the High Court upheld the right of a Buckinghamshire secondary school to ban a pupil from wearing the full-face veil or niqab in class because, among other things, it was deemed to be a barrier to communication.

There have been other legal challenges - about the headscarf, for example - and no doubt there are more to come.

After all, there are said to be more than 400,000 Muslim pupils in school education - 96% of them in state schools.

So, how reasonable is the MCB guidance?

The emphasis is almost entirely on how schools should adapt to Muslim pupils rather than vice-versa.

This may be understandable in a guidance document of this kind. However it may explain why hackles were raised at the Daily Express and elsewhere.

The document says more needs to be done to respond positively to the concerns of Muslim pupils and parents.

It calls for special considerations for Muslims in almost every aspect of school life: collective worship, PE, dance, swimming, exams, school meals, sex education and parents' evenings.

Proposals

The report rejects from the outset the policy that religion is a strictly private matter that lies outside the school's remit.

It says such an approach makes it "more difficult" for schools to respond positively to the "distinctive" needs of Muslim children.

Dress codes are one obvious source of potential problems. The MCB report is silent on the full-face veil.

But it does say schools "should accommodate" Muslim girls so they are allowed to wear "a full-length loose school skirt or loose trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a head scarf".

It adds that the headscarf, properly tied, should also be allowed in PE and science. It also says that amulets containing Koranic verses "should not be considered as jewellery".

As for boys, the guidance says they should be allowed to wear beards. Like the girls, they should be allowed to wear tracksuits during sport and PE.

Changing for PE, which is a compulsory part of the national curriculum, is one of the more troublesome areas.

Many primary schools lack separate changing facilities for boys and girls. Younger children often change in classrooms. This guidance says they should use portable partitions.

It argues that all schools, including secondaries, should ideally have separate changing facilities with "individual changing cubicles".

Muslim children "should not be expected to participate in communal showering".

The compromise of allowing Muslim pupils to shower in bathing costumes is not acceptable either, says the guidance, because Islam also forbids being in the presence of nakedness.

Sports involving physical contact (basketball, for example) should happen only in single-gender groups.

Swimming is fraught with difficulties. Again schools are urged "to make every effort" to provide single-sex swimming lessons, as well as allowing Muslim girls to wear full leotards or leggings in the water.

During Ramadan, some pupils might wish to be excused swimming if they fear that swallowing water would break their fast.

There are many other areas in which Muslim pupils need special consideration:

  • they cannot take part in dance
  • school meals must include halal options
  • Islamic Studies should be offered to all Muslim pupils in RE at Key Stage 4 (GCSE level)
  • schools "should consider" offering Arabic to Muslim pupils.

The list is long: there are stipulations covering music, drama, art, school libraries, provision for prayers, school visits, and raffles.

'Backlash'

So does this long list of special requirements help or hinder integration?

The leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, Mick Brookes, clearly has some concerns.

He said: "Schools are trying to create societies within their walls which are tolerant and celebratory.

"I just worry that the list of demands - if that is what it is - may be too much and will simply create a backlash."

I suspect the MCB did not consider this list of special considerations as "demands". But the guidance document does contain a very high count of the word "should".

Inclusivity and racial harmony are important to schools. They certainly have a role in countering racism, prejudice and Islamophobia.

But how far is it reasonable to expect schools to go? And how far should Muslim pupils and parents adapt to British school traditions?

I do not know the answers but would welcome your views.

Hard to manage

However the MCB report does not appear to address this as a two-way process.

While there is much stress on what Muslims might find offensive there is little about the offence that might be taken by other pupils and parents if school practices - such as dance or swimming - have to be changed.

The reality is that some of these special considerations would be hard to manage in schools.

How do you supervise pupils who are, for whatever reason, not taking part in a swimming or dance class?

Is it really reasonable to expect a primary school teacher to erect and dismantle portable partitions every time the class gets changed for PE?

Ban

These are difficult issues. The clashes between school uniform codes and the wearing of the veil have proved that.

There are other sensitivities too. A recent survey showed that 53% of people would support an outright ban on veils in schools.

They may find the veil a barrier to communication or regard it as raising issues of identification. Or they may find it offensive or just simply unfamiliar.

Schools are mostly tolerant places. It is important that these issues are aired and that everyone understands the sensitivities and concerns of others.

Schools certainly need to know what is offensive or problematic for Muslim students. No-one wants to cause offence through ignorance.

But in the end schools also have the right to expect some willingness to conform, whether it is to school uniform codes, curriculum requirements, behaviour policies or parental co-operation.

Also, language will be very important in this: telling schools what they "should" do for one particular group, without necessarily considering the impact on others, may not be the most persuasive approach.


SEE ALSO
Schools advised on Muslim pupils
21 Feb 07 |  Education
Schoolgirl loses veil legal case
21 Feb 07 |  Education

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