How to include pupils of all faiths at Christmas

Despite media reports to the contrary, schools with diverse populations rarely ‘cancel’ festivities at this time of year – but they do need to carefully consider different students’ needs and ensure that children of all faiths feel included, finds Irena Barker
11th December 2020, 12:00am
How To Include Pupils Of All Faiths At Christmas
Irena Barker

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How to include pupils of all faiths at Christmas

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/how-include-pupils-all-faiths-christmas

It's around this time of year that news reports start appearing about schools "cancelling Christmas" in an effort not to offend minority groups. It's as much an annual event as putting up the tree or turning on the Christmas lights. And while the pandemic will certainly have curtailed school celebrations this year, the likelihood is that these stories will still bubble up, which is unfortunate, as they are almost always a misinterpretation of what is actually happening in a school or, often, an outright falsehood.

It's rare that "cancelling Christmas" actually happens in a school, says Peter Hemming, reader in education at the University of Brighton and author of a resource pack and research review on religion and diversity in primary schools.

"Most minority faith groups don't have a problem with Christmas being celebrated," he says. "The question for them would be how is it being celebrated and are their children able to participate comfortably in that?"

You'd struggle to find a school that does not try to be inclusive at Christmas but, sometimes, the right way to do this can be difficult to grasp.

Hemming explains that there are several key considerations for schools, the first being that you should never start with any assumptions about whether certain groups might object to celebrations or aspects of them, and put your focus solely on them for inclusivity efforts. "Often, the focus is placed on Muslim pupils," he says. "But there's a whole range of diversity of faith that needs to be taken into account."

Indeed, even within Christianity there are a variety of views of Christmas, with Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, being opposed to celebrating it.

Hemming adds that non-religious families also need to be considered. "Increasingly, there are non-religious pupils who may be very happy to celebrate Christmas in a cultural way but, if it becomes too religious, that could be potentially exclusive for them," he says.

As well as banishing any perceptions of certain religious groups having more of a problem with Christmas than others, those within each group also need to be treated as individuals, as opinions will vary hugely across families.

Do you hear what I hear?

Which brings us to the second key element of an inclusive Christmas: communication. Hemming says that schools really need to understand the religious needs of pupils and their families.

The trouble for teachers is that research has shown that pupils' religious needs are often unknown to schools and pupils from minority groups often lack the confidence to point out when their needs are not being met, particularly when teachers do not share the same religious background.

For example, one study from 2011, focusing on relations with the South Asian Muslim community, found that many female mothers were intimidated by what they saw as a "white environment" and did not feel confident to speak to teachers at the school.

Hemming explains that the area is under-researched. "We've often not talked to pupils," he says. "And even parents' views have not been gathered on a large scale."

To be able to have clear communication with parents about Christmas, these barriers have to be overcome and that has to be a year-round effort, not something looked at just in the run-up to Christmas. By making the effort to understand the religious and cultural position of every family, explicit conversations around how Christmas can be made more inclusive can be had.

The play's the thing

What sort of things are likely to come up in those conversations? This is where the third key element comes in: adaptation, not exclusion. "The main issue is whether or not groups are viewing Christmas celebrations as religious or cultural," says Hemming.

"Obviously, if they are held in a church and there's lots of prayer and overtly religious songs, then that can sometimes cause anxiety among certain groups," he says, but if it's held in the school hall and the songs are more inclusive, "that can be more accessible".

However, even if schools have to hold events in a church, he says, teachers can make it clear that prayers are not compulsory.

"If there's a particularly Christian hymn, pupils might say the words slightly differently, so they'll align it with their own religious position," he says. "I don't think it has to be the case that all minority pupils are excluded from these events."

The same goes for nativity plays, he feels: schools should not assume it is something non-Christian families would oppose.

"The nativity play is increasingly viewed as a cultural expression," he says.

"I think many non-religious parents are happy for their kids to take part in it almost as a kind of rite of passage."

The nativity play at Longsight Community Primary in Manchester, a secular free school with an 85 per cent Muslim intake, and a mix of other pupils from Christian, Hindu and Sikh backgrounds, is indeed a highlight of the year, along with Eid celebrations.

Headteacher Rukhsana Ahmed says that Muslim parents regularly vie for their children to play Mary or Joseph. "Christmas is quite a big thing at our school, and very much our focus has been that it's about a community coming together to celebrate.

"We absolutely talk about its importance as a religious festival but also as a British custom, and that's how we look at it: as an important British custom that we all enjoy," she says.

School staff decorate a tree, children take part in Christmas jumper day and eat Christmas dinner and attend parties.

"I would say we do practically everything," says Ahmed.

She explains, however, that the school is "very careful" about the wording of the script in the nativity play. "With some of our Muslim families, it's not so much that they would take offence, they would find it really uncomfortable for their children to be saying something that goes against the teachings of their religion," she says.

"As Muslims, we believe that Jesus is a prophet and we believe in the Virgin birth but, as Muslims, we don't believe that Jesus is divine - that's a hard one.

"That's not to say Muslim children can't be taught about the divinity but to say it out of their mouths is almost like saying 'actually, I agree with it'. That's why we change the words slightly."

Even with these amendments, some families occasionally opt out - a "handful" in the six years the school has been open - and it's important for schools to respect that, Ahmed says. "Some Muslim parents will say 'it's not for me' and that's absolutely fine. And it's never forced; we don't force children to be part of it," she says.

Broader Christmas celebrations, meanwhile, are presented as an important British tradition rather than a "heavily weighted religious festival", she adds.

O come, all ye faithful

These adaptations are perhaps harder when Christmas is in fact a heavily weighted religious festival, such as in Catholic schools.

So, how do Catholic schools manage Christmas when their intake is increasingly from diverse backgrounds?

Around a quarter of Catholic schools' students overall are from other religious traditions or no faith at all, explains Angela Keller, the Catholic Education Service's adviser to Wales and a former headteacher.

For example, there are 26,000 Muslim pupils in Catholic schools in England and Wales, she says.

Again, the key is good communication from the start. When parents select the school, it is important to be explicit about what they are signing up for and how that may be reflected in events such as Christmas.

"Our mission is to welcome, to be pluralistic and inclusive, and I think when a parent chooses one of our schools…they know what we're doing.

"Our message is clear and they buy into what the school is about," she adds. "Our parents are aware of our religious traditions."

Keller explains that Advent activities that stress service and charitable work tend to chime with many other religions.

"The parents and children who are choosing a Catholic school respect the Catholic tradition but they also know we are respectful of other traditions, so there isn't a tension," she says.

Parents have already invested in the Catholic ethos, says Keller. "For example, in Wales, you wouldn't choose to send your child to a Welsh-medium school and then expect everyone to speak English.

"When parents come in, they know what they're buying into and they agree with the values and traditions and we create an inclusive environment."

In reality, then, Christmas should never be an issue in schools. The celebrations in December are really a test of how far the school ethos and mission have been translated to parents and how far communication channels have remained open.

If Christmas passes without a hitch, a school is clearly doing something right. But if it is fraught with difficulties? It's likely not Christmas that is the problem, but rather how open conversations have been in the 12 months and beyond before it.

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 11 December 2020 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...Diversity at Christmas"

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