x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UK teacher loses long battle for inclusiveness

The head of a Sheffield school quits after Muslim parents opposed her decision to introduce a single assembly for all faiths.

LONDON // There was outrage yesterday after the headmistress of an English primary school was forced to resign because she had scrapped separate assemblies for Muslim children. Amid accusations that some Muslims were trying to create Islamic "ghettos" in Britain, it emerged that Julia Robinson quit following an acrimonious, 18-month battle in which she was accused of being racist by a small group of Muslim parents. Mrs Robinson, who became head teacher at the 240-pupil Meersbrook Bank primary school in Sheffield just over two years ago, decided to abolish the weekly Muslim assemblies because she wanted to "promote inclusiveness by holding assemblies for all the pupils of all faiths", one teacher said. The separate assembly for Muslim children, who constitute about one-fifth of the school roll, was introduced about a decade ago after parents complained that their children had been "forced" by a teacher to sing a Christian hymn at one assembly. In fact, under a law introduced more than 60 years ago, all state schools in England and Wales are required to hold a single act of worship "of a broadly Christian character" for all pupils, although those of different faiths may elect not to attend. For several years, some Muslim activists have been urging parents to withdraw their children from school assemblies and press for separate acts of worship. Other Muslim groups, however, contend that having all faiths in a single assembly is the best way to promote understanding and tolerance. The strain became so great that Mrs Robinson was absent on health grounds for most of past year. "She was under a lot of pressure," said one teacher who did not wish to be named. "The plan was for her to come back but, again, some of the parents put a stop to that. Many of us here just feel this is all very wrong. Julia was doing the right thing and went through all the right routes. There's no other school we know that has separate assemblies like these. "The buzzword from the authority at the moment is all about community cohesion, but there is little cohesion at this school. The staff are very upset at what has happened." British newspapers and many of their readers seemed even more upset. The Daily Telegraph quoted a spokesman for the National Association of Head Teachers as saying that no other school in the country held separate assemblies for different faiths. "Segregating children is not good practice," the association said. "The whole point is to gather people together to share their views and to learn from other people's viewpoints." The Telegraph added: "In seeking to achieve just that, Mrs Robinson has - shamefully - been branded a racist by some Muslim parents. If there is racism at play here, it is not on the part of the head teacher." Damian Thompson, editor of The Catholic Herald, wrote: "Muslim ghettos are being constructed across the North of England. Among their building blocks are school-sanctioned meetings for children from ethnic minorities designed to turn them into strictly observant Muslims - whether they like it or not. "The Muslim indoctrination of primary school children is designed to produce young adults who reject and despise the tolerant, liberal society in which they live. No wonder staff and most parents backed Julia Robinson. We should, too." The Sheffield Telegraph reported yesterday that only four parents had made the original complaint against Mrs Robinson. An unnamed former parent-governor at the school told the newspaper: "Mrs Robinson sought advice from the local [education] authority on how best to bring in the changes. She was advised to proceed with her plans for a collective act of worship. "Mrs Robinson consulted widely and had the support of most of the governing body. But opposition did come from one group of parents. They were a minority but it was a difficult issue to deal with as people were frightened to be branded racist. "There is no one less racist than Julia, but she was branded as such and she received no support from the council. "It proved to be disruptive and we were told that if the head did return, the Muslim children would not respect her authority." Fiyza Awan, 19, a Muslim with a sister at the school, said: "When Mrs Robinson took over, she said she wanted one assembly for all the students. We didn't have a problem with that, but we wanted a non-secular assembly where no hymns were sung and topics involving all the children could be discussed. "But after a while, hymns were introduced again and we objected. We felt we were being marginalised. We didn't put any pressure on her. We want continuity at the school. It was her decision to leave." Mrs Robinson was not at her home yesterday and was said to be staying with friends. In a statement through Sheffield Council, she said: "I understand the concerns of people on all sides of the debate around faith assemblies in schools and hope that this debate can be positive and constructive. "I have great respect for the staff and governors working in Meersbrook Bank School and I hope that they will be allowed to continue their work without further intrusion. My sincere wish is that children are given every opportunity to continue learning in an inclusive and welcoming environment." The new head teacher has introduced single, multifaith assemblies for all pupils. dsapsted@thenational.ae