Monday, December 8, 2014

Diversity in Britain: A Sikh principal, too English for a largely Muslim school

As a Sikh and second-generation British-born running a public school made up mostly of Muslim students, Balwant Bains was at the center of the issues facing multicultural Britain, including the perennial question of balancing religious precepts and cultural identity against assimilation. But in January 2014, Bains stepped down as the principal of the Saltley School and Specialist Science College, saying that he could no longer do the job in the face of relentless criticism from the Muslim-dominated school board. It had pressed him, unsuccessfully, to replace some courses with Islamic and Arabic studies, segregate girls and boys and drop a citizenship class on tolerance and democracy in Britain. “I suppose I was a threat, giving these children more British values, for them to be integrated into society,” Bains said. His experience has helped bring to life the often deeply emotional and highly contentious conflicts unearthed by a British government investigation in 2014 into whether organized groups of Muslims were having undue influence on public schools. The topic has become especially sensitive at a time when Britain is concerned about the radicalization of young Muslims in the country and their involvement with jihadis in Syria and Iraq. The investigation was prompted by an anonymous letter, sent in 2013 to local officials in Birmingham, alleging an organized Islamic takeover of British schools in Muslim neighborhoods. Conducted by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, or Ofsted, the agency found much that was troubling about Muslim efforts to promote changes in secular public schools, and it has recently widened its investigation to 46 schools across the country. The investigation found that five schools in Birmingham, including Bains’, shared a pattern of behavior similar to what was described in the anonymous letter. The letter also cited Bains’s impending resignation, a month before it was made official and which only a few knew about, suggesting that the author was someone with detailed knowledge of the schools. “The Sikh head running a Muslim school,” the letter said, “will soon be sacked and we will move in.” The investigation found that some teachers and school board governors at the other schools were encouraging homophobia, anti-Semitism and support for Al Qaeda, sometimes inviting speakers who endorsed the establishment of a state run under Sharia law. One school stopped music and drama lessons as well as Christmas and Diwali celebrations, and subsidized trips to Saudi Arabia for Muslim students. In another school, the report found, girls and female teachers were discriminated against, and compulsory sex education, including discussions about forced marriage, was banned. Girls and boys seen talking for too long or considered flirtatious were reprimanded, while boys were given worksheets that said a wife had to obey her husband. The report, released in July 2014, highlighted Bains’s case and concluded that there had been a “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action, carried out by a number of associated individuals, to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham.”

No comments: