When the authorities in Stoke-on-Trent recently issued guidance related to Ramadan, it was widely reported that schools were being ordered to cancel swimming lessons and postpone exams. In reality, the document simply suggested various ways that schools could support Muslim pupils, none of which were compulsory.
"This kind of guidance is necessary to raise awareness," says Ibrahim Brian Hewitt, of the Muslim Educational Trust. "We still hear of teachers telling pupils that fasting is bad for their health, or suggesting they drink a little water. It is unfair, because children who are fasting need support and encouragement."
For the month of Ramadan, which runs until September 9, all Muslims who have reached puberty and are in good health are required to abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. The aim is to carry on as normal during the fast, but even so, schools should be sensitive to pupils' needs. For example, PE teachers may want to plan less strenuous lessons so children do not become dehydrated, and some pupils may prefer to avoid swimming, so they do not swallow water. Ramadan is also a time when Muslims seek purity of thought, so sex education lessons could be a problem.
It is up to schools to decide whether to change their routines or simply allow Muslim pupils to opt out.
"But it's important that no one is disadvantaged because of their faith," says Mr Hewitt, pointing out that this year only the final week of Ramadan will fall in term time, making it easier for schools to be flexible.
At Park View Business and Enterprise School in Birmingham, where nearly all pupils are Muslim, the school day is restructured during Ramadan, with a shorter break at lunchtime and an early finish. Dedicated prayer rooms are also set up around the school and non-Muslim pupils and teachers take part in the first day of fasting, as a show of solidarity. "The whole community becomes involved," says assistant head Monzoor Hussein.
Not surprisingly, at schools with few Muslim children, Ramadan tends to have a lower profile, but that makes it the perfect time to explore Islam during RE.
At secondary level, there is no reason why Ramadan should disrupt schoolwork: Mr Hussein says students' focus and behaviour often improves during the month. But it is more tricky in primaries, where even the youngest children may fast for at least part of the month. "We neither encourage it, nor discourage it," says Naila Zaffar, head at Lapage Primary in Bradford. "But we do ask that children have their parents' permission to fast, and we keep a close eye on them, because it can be tiring."
But with most of Ramadan falling in the summer holidays this year, Mrs Zaffar thinks it unlikely pupils will be coming back to school tired and irritable. And because it moves back around ten days each year in the Gregorian calendar, for the next five years or so it will fall entirely within the holidays.
"Of course, when it next falls in term-time it will be during the long, hot days of July," says Mrs Zaffar. "That makes the fast more demanding - but even so, young people usually cope very well, if you just make a few adjustments."
WHAT TO DO
- Avoid scheduling parents' evenings during Ramadan.
- Don't give fasting children food or water, except in a genuine medical emergency. If you have concerns, contact parents.
- The first few days of fasting, as the body adjusts, are usually the most difficult. Ensure you know which pupils in the class are participating.
- Organise clubs or activities during the lunchbreak to help occupy fasting pupils.
- Young children who are not fasting may still get tired due to a change of routine at home.
- The Muslim Educational Trust's advice for schools can be found at www.muslim-ed-trust.org.ukpdframadan.pdf.