NSS welcomes support for schools facing religious intimidation

Teachers should receive greater protections from accusations of blasphemy, according to a new government-commissioned report.

The report, from crossbench peer John Walney, recommends the creation of statutory guidance on managing blasphemy-related incidents in schools.

This would include measures preventing schools from automatically suspending teachers facing blasphemy accusations, as well as commitments to protecting accused teachers identities, and to upholding teachers’ freedom of expression.

In 2021, a teacher at Batley Grammar school was suspended after being accused of blasphemy. His identity and personal details were also widely shared online.

The Walney report also says schools are not required to “engage with or appease local activist groups or religious institutions” in managing blasphemy-related incidents or other tensions, including around relationships and sex education.

In 2023, a copy of the Quran was slightly damaged at a school in Kettlethorpe, leading to a 14 year old boy receiving death threats. The school responded by suspending the pupils involved and meeting with leaders from the local mosque, a meeting Walney describes as an exercise in “ritual humiliation”.

The report said it was “shameful for all involved” that one of the boy’s mothers appeared at this meeting to “plead for mercy” in an “intimidating and partisan setting”, in order to “deter public protests”.

Walney described how during these and other blasphemy-related incidents, the implicit threat of violence “exercised a form of veto” over what is taught in UK classrooms.

The report’s recommendations echo previous calls made by the National Secular Society for greater support for teachers facing blasphemy accusations.

In 2023, following the incident in Kettlethorpe, the NSS wrote to Education Secretary Gillian Keegan urging government action to protect schools from intimidation and pressure from religious fundamentalists.

Other government-appointed figures have also recently highlighted the threat of blasphemy accusations. In a recent report, Sara Khan, the Government’s Independent Advisor on Social Cohesion and Resilience, recommended creating a special unit tasked with responding to “flashpoint incidents” such as blasphemy protests.

Similarly, Robin Simcox, the Commissioner for Countering Extremism, warned in 2023 that allegations of blasphemy are suppressing free expression in the UK.

In March, a report from the Commission for Countering Extremism also warned that UK ‘anti-blasphemy activism’ is becoming “increasingly radicalised” and is being promoted by charities.

NSS: ‘Report’s focus on blasphemy support for schools is welcome’

National Secular Society spokesperson Jack Rivington said: “The Walney report’s focus on the threats and intimidation faced by UK schools in relation to blasphemy accusations is welcome, as is its recommendation for greater protections for teachers.

“Teachers and schools need to be far better supported. The Government should take heed of concerns about blasphemy-related violence by enacting Walney’s recommendation to issue statutory guidance.

“And blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland, which lend legitimacy to blasphemy accusations levelled by extremists, must also be repealed as a matter of urgency.”

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