NSS urges support for schools facing religious intimidation

Posted: Thu, 2nd Mar 2023

NSS urges support for schools facing religious intimidation

The National Secular Society has urged the government to do more to support schools which face "intimidation and pressure" from religious fundamentalists.

In a letter to education secretary Gillian Keegan today, the NSS said recent events at a school where pupils were suspended over minor damage to a Quran "followed a familiar pattern of so-called community leaders whipping up tension and peddling misinformation".

Last week four pupils were suspended from Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield after a pupil brought a Quran into school, where it was allegedly scuffed.

One local councillor, Usman Ali, described the incident on social media as "serious provocative action which needs to be dealt with urgently by all the authorities," including the police.

The child who brought the Quran into school reportedly suffered death threats.

The NSS highlighted other incidents in which "an inadequate response" from the government "emboldened fundamentalists seeking to exert pressure through intimidation".

This included Batley Grammar School, where in 2021 a religious education teacher was forced into hiding after showing a picture of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in class.

Additionally, in 2019 several primary schools in Birmingham faced protests and threats from religious activists over LGBT-inclusive education.

And in 2018, St Stephen's Primary School in east London was subjected to abusive and threatening messages to its staff and trustees, after the school asked parents not to make young children wear hijab or fast for Ramadan. The school was forced to reverse its policies, and leaders expressed frustration at the DfE's failure to support them.

A review of the government's counterextremism Prevent programme last month highlighted the "violence associated with accusations of blasphemy and apostasy" as an area of particular importance in challenging extremism. It said a strong pro-free speech narrative should be adopted in counter-narrative and community project work. The NSS urged the Department for Education to consider this recommendation "in the context of state schools, which are increasingly becoming a battlefield for religious fundamentalists".

The NSS also called for a "renewed emphasis" on citizenship education to "provide future citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to understand, challenge and engage with democratic society".

NSS chief executive: Government must "take concrete steps to better protect and support schools"

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, said: "The government has a track record of failing to adequately support schools faced with disruptive interference from religious extremists.

"The latest incident in Wakefield appears to have followed a familiar pattern of so-called community leaders whipping up tension and peddling misinformation, leading to an overreaction to what should have been an internal school disciplinary issue.

"Without the support of the DfE, school leaders are left at the mercy of fundamentalist activists and online mobs. This allows extremists to control the situation and creates the impression that the protection of religious sensibilities is sacrosanct, to the detriment of important liberal principles.

"The government must therefore take concrete steps to better protect and support schools in such situations. In the short term, we trust the Department will ensure that the suspended pupils can return safely to school."

Image: Meeting at Jamia Masjid Swafia mosque following the incident at Kettlethorpe High School.

What the NSS stands for

The Secular Charter outlines 10 principles that guide us as we campaign for a secular democracy which safeguards all citizens' rights to freedom of and from religion.

Tags: Free speech