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Zero tolerance

Religious Education has a very odd place in the family of subjects. In England it's a statutory requirement but not a national curriculum one. It's also the only discrete subject from which parents have a right to withdraw their children, with no justification or threshold criteria required. And it's the only subject whose thematic core is decided at a local level by community faith representatives.

It's a completely mad situation, peppered with more loopholes than a skinhead's boot. And when you get loopholes like that, in a subject that directly deals with faith - and, by proxy, race - you often encounter an issue that I'm going to call people being "a little bit racist".

A few years ago I organised one of many trips to a place of worship. (If you want to get out of school frequently, teach RE - we rule the absence rota. I used to keep a trip permission slip ready in my back pocket, just in case.)

On this occasion, as usual, there was the Herculean task of getting every permission slip in; God forbid you missed one and Little Billy decided to catch the bus home alone without telling you. This time, I met with resistance from a parent who was "a little bit racist". Little Billy wasn't returning his slip, and when I asked him why he showed me a note: "I do NOT give my permission for Billy to go to the Mosk and I do NOT want to be called about this."

The visit was to a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, not a mosque - or a "Mosk" - but potato pohtahto.

So I called her and asked why she hadn't given permission, because I feel pretty strongly about this issue. An educational trip to a place of worship can be an extraordinary thing, and our job is to broaden children's horizons. If pupils are to be kept away, they'd better be allergic to incense or something.

"He don't need to know about that kind of thing" was her eventual reply. I was like a badger; my jaws locked. "What sort of thing?" I asked, knowing that this was only going one way and it wouldn't be good.

"Them things," she explained helpfully. "Them Islam places. He don't know no Islams, he don't have no Islam friends. He don't need to know them things." I knew it, I just wanted to hear it.

As a white man, I find it's rare that someone just comes out with a statement like this, but sometimes you can sense they're sounding you out, knowing what they really want to say is controversial - or "a little bit racist".

"That's a pity," I said. "I think you need to appreciate that this trip is to help the students understand different cultures."

"He don't have to go," she replied.

"No," I admitted.

"Then he ain't. He don't need to know about that kind of thing."

So he didn't. But because I believed that Billy deserved the education whether or not his mother wanted it, I set him work while we were away about faith discrimination in the UK. He was meant to finish it at home but didn't. Primarily, I think, because his mother was "a little bit racist". Or just "racist" as it's sometimes known.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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