Islamists are wreaking havoc in British schools
Secular education is under concerted attack from hardline Muslim activists.
Maintaining authority in the classroom is difficult at the best of times. But it’s even harder when schools are being turned into sites of political conflict. In recent years, many of these conflicts have involved Islamist activists and Muslim parents who wish to impose their cultural and political ethos on the classroom. Their aim is to refashion schools in their own image. Those who stand in the way often court the risk of being accused of Islamophobia.
The battle over the future of Barclay Primary School in Leyton, east London is the latest example of a school under severe pressure from activists and parents. Its troubles began last November, when it asked parents to stop sending their children in wearing Palestinian flags, badges and stickers. This decision was furiously contested by a group of parents and pro-Palestinian activists. They launched a campaign to force the school to reverse this decision. It soon turned into a campaign of intimidation against the teachers and the school authorities.
In the run-up to Christmas, masked men climbed the school’s fence at night to hang Palestinian flags around its perimeter. During the day, protesters gathered outside the school gate and chanted ‘Barclay, shame on you’. There were also arson and bomb threats made to the school and individual staff. The school was forced to close two days earlier than planned before the Christmas break.
Since then, the situation has deteriorated further. Facing allegations of Islamophobia and threats of violence, teachers at Barclay have said they fear for their safety. Police officers have had to be stationed at the school, such has been the level of hostility towards staff. The school has since sent a letter out to parents saying that it might be forced to ‘revert to online learning’ if it feels that it cannot guarantee the safety of children and staff. There are reports that it may even be forced to close.
Barclay Primary is far from the only school to come under attack from Muslim activists and parents. After the Michaela Community School in Brent, north-west London, imposed a prayer ban early last year, bomb threats were made to staff, the school was vandalised and a brick was thrown through a teacher’s window. A Muslim pupil at the school has now brought a case against Michaela to the High Court, alleging that it is discriminating against Muslims.
These skirmishes are not really about pupils’ right to fly a Palestinian flag or to pray, as such. The activists’ real aim is to use these particular causes to undermine the secular foundation of British schools.
What happened at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire in 2021 provides a perfect example of this approach. After a teacher showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson about free speech and blasphemy, local activists quickly mobilised and exerted pressure on the school through protests and threats. They eventually forced the school to suspend the teacher in question. On police advice, the teacher was then forced to go into hiding, where he has remained – with his family – ever since.
The way Batley Grammar caved into the protesters’ demands has served to embolden militant activists. Indeed, since the Batley Grammar incident, teachers are even more careful about what they say for fear of provoking Muslim sensibilities. According to a poll of 1,000 teachers conducted last year by Policy Exchange, 16 per cent admitted to censoring themselves in order to avoid causing religious offence. As Policy Exchange put it, the practice of self-censorship means that a ‘de facto blasphemy code exists in schools across the country’.
In truth, the emergence of de facto blasphemy code has been a long time coming. Especially since the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, many British schools have shied away from tackling what they consider to be thorny questions with Muslim pupils. There have been reports that some teachers are even avoiding selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework, ‘for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils’.
In 2015, the conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) voted for a motion stating that teachers should be able to avoid classroom discussions of Islamic extremism. Then NUT general secretary Christine Blower claimed that teachers were worried they’d have to report Muslim pupils to the police should they express reservations about, say, cartoons of Muhammad. But this was an excuse. Teachers weren’t worried about police intervention. They were worried about offending the sensibilities of Muslim activists.
Today, Islamic activism poses a clear threat to teachers’ authority. And it does so at a time when schools are struggling to retain control over their students in general. Sir Martyn Oliver, who became Ofsted’s chief inspector at the start of the year, warned last week of teachers’ growing loss of control over the classroom. He spoke of schools where staff have been forced to lock themselves in their classrooms to protect themselves, or have been stopped by children from stepping into ‘no go’ areas.
What Oliver describes is not merely the breakdown of teachers’ control of the classroom. It also indicates the corrosion of adult authority. When this corrosion is taken advantage of by Muslim activists, ready to level the charge of ‘Islamophobia’ against opponents, it calls the very integrity of public education into question.
The threat posed by Muslim protesters and agitators, creating trouble at the school gate and now in the courtroom, needs to be taken far more seriously. They are threatening education itself. And it will be the children who attend schools like Barclay Primary who will be made to pay the price.
Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.
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