Tuesday 10 February 2009

Freedom of assembly

A primary school headteacher in Sheffield has resigned, following parental protests at her decision to end separate assemblies for Muslim children (or rather, following Richard Dawkins, perhaps we should say 'children of Muslim parents'). Apparently Julia Robinson believed that holding a single assembly for all pupils was a better way to achieve integration and cohesion within the school.

The law requires schools in England to hold a daily act of worship that is 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character'. Parents of other faiths or none have the right to withdraw their children from these events, but not to demand that the school provides an alternative tailored to their own beliefs. Clearly, the school should not have conceded so much to Muslim parents in the first place: Ms. Robinson was simply correcting a mistake that should never have been made.

Discussing the affair on the World at One this lunchtime, a teaching union spokesperson argued that the legal requirement for a broadly Christian act of worship is in conflict with other measures aimed at achieving social cohesion, and urged the government to review the policy as a matter of urgency. Talk to most teachers in state (non-faith) schools and they will tell you the same thing: the current law, which requires mostly non-believing teachers to lead mostly non-believing pupils in an act of religious worship is a farce, and in most schools produces a dishonest fudge. 

Also interviewed on the programme was the Labour MP for the constituency, Meg Munn, who indulged in a fair amount of fudging herself. Clearly anxious not to offend any of the parties to the affair, she argued that decisions about separate assemblies should be left to schools. But she did make the extraordinary claim that it was part of the school's business to introduce children to faith - and she didn't mean in an objective, RE kind of way. In this, she is plainly wrong. If Muslim parents, or parents of any other religion, want their children to be initiated into their beliefs, they should do it themselves, or send their offspring to a faith school. The mission of a state school should be to expose children to a wide range of beliefs, and to familiarise them with the common values that are shared across society, not to provide facilities for them to be indoctrinated exclusively in the beliefs of one group or sect. 

Just as there is no place for Muslim assemblies in state schools, so there is no longer any justification for Christian worship, however much it's hedged around with qualifying adverbs like 'broadly' or 'mainly'. Julia Robinson was right, and it's a shame she's had to resign her post.

Seems there may be more to this story than meets the eye. Edmund Standing quotes the Sheffield Telegraph report which reveals that Julia Robinson was accused of racism by some parents after her attempts to foster inclusiveness at the school. Remember that her proposal was to offer a single assembly that embraced all faiths - does that sound like racism to you? Although Ms Robinson's resignation wasn't explicitly linked to this episode, other teachers say that she was under pressure because of the affair and was 'absent through ill health' for most of last year.

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