Sunday, 22 September 2013

Al-Madinah School, Derby: UPDATE

Britain's first Muslim free school is controlled by religious hardliners who ban children from singing or reading fairy tales and force staff to wear headscarves - according to the former head teacher and deputy who claim they were forced to leave.

Andrew Cutts-McKay resigned from his role as head of al Madinah School in Derby in August, two months after deputy Suzanne Southerland stepped down from her post. Both allege they were 'bullied and sidelined' by members of the school's trust, which is predominantly Muslim. The school strongly denies the pair's claims.
But earlier this week, concerns were raised by teachers who complained they were being ordered to wear the hijab – even if they are not Muslim.

Now claims have been made that alongside the strict dress code, the school's 200 pupils are banned from playing stringed instruments, which are forbidden in the Islamic faith.

Singing is also forbidden unless it involves Islamic faith songs, while youngsters are not allowed to read fairy tales as these are 'non-Islamic'.

A staff member told The Sunday Times: 'When teaching children the alphabet, you could not associate the letter 'p' with pig.' We were told that we couldn't read the children a story about a witch because it's seen as being non-Islamic.'

Other staff have highlighted ‘concerns’ over the school's practices, which include banning non-halal food and forcing female pupils as young as four to sit at the back of the class away from boys.

Female members of staff, some of whom are not Muslims, say they have been told to sign new contracts which force them to wear the hijab. These also ban them from wearing jewellery on the school’s premises in Derby.

One woman, who had been interviewed for a position, claimed she was told she was not allowed to shake hands with male teachers to avoid ‘insult’.  

Another staff member, speaking anonymously to the Mail, said the school was ‘like being in Pakistan’. She said: ‘Girls are treated very separately from boys, the girls sit at the back of the classroom. Boys go and eat first at lunchtime and then the girls are allowed to go. It is like being in any school in Pakistan. That is why it was founded, that is the idea.’

The decision to make all female members of staff, regardless of religious beliefs, wear the Islamic headscarf – which covers the head but not the face – was apparently introduced over the summer. But some female members of staff have been spotted removing the headwear immediately after stepping out of the school building during their lunch hour. And around half a dozen teachers at the free school, who could face losing their jobs if they refuse to comply with the rules, are now seeking legal advice from the National Union of Teachers.

Regional NUT officer Nick Raine said: ‘We are very worried about the school and the education of the 200 children there. There are worries over practices concerning the discrimination between male and female pupils in the school, with the girls being told to sit at the back of the class regardless of whether they can see the board properly.' He added: ‘It’s one thing to have a dress code which we can challenge and quite another to build it into a contract. The school is publicly accountable so there needs to be a greater level of transparency.’

As a free school, Al-Madinah operates outside local authority control but still qualifies for government funding. It was set up in September last year.

Sue Arguile, branch secretary of the Derby National Union of Teachers, said the new demands stem from the Al-Madinah’s free school status. She said: ‘We have always had a number of concerns about this school ever since it was first set up, as essentially they can do what they like. There is no buffer between them and the state and no protection for staff and pupils. Free schools set their own rules, curriculums and dress codes, and so long as pupils and staff are aware of them before joining, then there is no upset. But forcing people to agree to contractual changes or face being out of work could breach employment law.’

Former head teacher Andrew Cutts-McKay, who left after less than a year in the post, previously said the school would ‘honour all faiths’. However he admitted that he thought at least half of the school’s pupils would be Muslims.

The school’s acting principal Stuart Wilson, who began his job on September 5, denied claims of bullying towards his former colleagues. He also disputed that there was anything within staff contracts requiring women to wear the hijab or a headscarf. However, he added: 'The expectation for female staff, raised in adverts and interviews, is that the head is covered while on site. To date, no complaint has been raised with the governing body relating to female staff wearing the hijab or headscarf.'

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