Faith, hope and a disgusting lack of charity

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
I had a very silent moment last week when I heard of a racist incident in a Scottish primary. Take a young Muslim boy whose name is not Hamish or Darren or Keanu or anything common in Scotland. His name is straightforward in terms of how the vowels and consonants run together. But his teacher can't or won't pronounce it properly. The lad's name is too linguistically challenging for her so she calls him a corrupted version of his name which, unfortunately, sounds like a girl's name. The other boys capitalise on this - the teacher is gifting them a perfect victim for merciless bullying. Yes, it's racism.

But it gets worse. If the incident is traumatic - I use the present tense because it is continuing to happen - the teacher's response to the parents was horribly colonial to say the least. After a thoroughly unsatisfactory exchange the final barbed comment was: "Well, if you must come in from another country." The mother was stung by this racist bullet but she responded quickly: "Which country do you have in mind? He was born and brought up in London." I could not find suitable words to tell the mother how horrified I was but, for me, the floodgates were opened.

Is it an isolated incident? No, it is not. The anecdotes pour in. I hear stories about children who use a fork and spoon at home being coerced to conform to standard issue British Empire cutlery. It is disturbing to learn of a child who is sent to the Bad Chair because he refuses to use a knife to eat his rice. Cultural and religious diversity seem to be an alien concept in some schools. Which raises the thorny question of why HMI insists on schools running religious observance assemblies. The majority of schools orgaise these by buying a pack of "assembly messages" - the ultimate in deadly banality and indoctrination.

Pupils hate it because they can spot what's happening a mile away. You can't take pre-packaged homilies and shove them down kids' throats without the whole school community living and breathing these values. Many of the values may be honourable in themselves but pompous chaplains with their imported Sunday voices send the kids to sleep and do nothing to assuage the prejudices which are still stalking some schools.

I know that I have to be careful here. Someone will accuse me of trying to do away with religion in schools. On the contrary. But we must differentiate between religious observance and religious education. Religious education is the right of every pupil. If it is properly taught it will impart knowledge which will break down the barriers of ignorance. But there is no place in the RE classroom for religious observance.

For RE to have an impact on, say, racism it must be properly organised and the department must be fully supported by the senior management team in the school. As a compulsory core subject for S1-S4 it has to have its rightful place in the timetable. Pupils should not have to opt to take it as a core subject - it should be automatic.

Yes, the facility to opt out on grounds of religious beliefs is always there, but very few pupils opt out for genuine religious reasons. In my school an average of one pupil a year in a school population of approximately 1,000 will opt out. I think of the bullied boy and I am glad that the pupils in my school regard religious and moral education as a non-negotiable and vital part of the curriculum.

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