Protests outside Batley Grammar school over Prophet Muhammad cartoon row 'not right', says minister

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Sangeeta Kandola

Protests for a second day outside Batley Grammar school in response to a teacher reportedly showing a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad are "not right", a government minister has said.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick called on protesters to "go home" and said he was "deeply troubled" at the idea of a teacher being "censored".

The teacher has been identified on social media and has been suspended. The headteacher of the West Yorkshire school has apologised and children have been told to learn at home but protesters returned on Friday.

Mr Jenrick said: "We don't know exactly what was said or done in the classroom, and these things depend on context.

"It's for the school to think that through carefully, and I know the Department for Education is in discussions with them," he told ITV News.

Mr Jenrick continued: "But I am deeply troubled by the suggestion that a teacher conducting a religious studies class should have material censored or should feel threatened or intimated by what they may have said. "And the scenes outside the school gates I think are a cause of great concern to us. "We don't want to see any teacher, member of staff, parent or pupil worried about passing through the gates of a school at the beginning of a day, that isn't the kind of country we are and I would strongly encourage those people who are doing that, in breach of the Covid guidelines, to go home and to handle this matter in a normal and sensible manner."

Ben Chapman explains the latest from outside the school

Baroness Warsi, former chairwoman of the Conservative party, told the Today programme: "I think this is about children, it’s about child safeguarding and making sure the school look again, as should every school, to ensure that every pupil in their school is being taught in a way which creates a positive, unifying learning environment."

She added: "Unfortunately, this matter has been hijacked by extremists on both sides to kind of create this culture war. What we’re forgetting in all of this is the most important party in all of this, which is the kids and their learning."

The peer said she had spoken to pupils and parents over the past 24 hours, and "it’s obvious that many pupils were left distressed because of what happened".

The Department for Education has been accused of amplifying divisions amid warnings the incident had been "hijacked by extremists on both sides to kind of create this culture war."

Protesters gathered at the school gates for a second day on Friday. Credit: PA

It follows claims a member of staff showed students a cartoon deemed offensive to the Islamic faith during a religious studies lesson.

The school “unequivocally” apologised for showing “totally inappropriate” material to children.

It said a member of staff has been suspended pending an investigation.

Credit: PA

The Department for Education branded the protests “completely unacceptable”, and said they included “threats” and “intimidation”.

The department’s response has since been criticised by the Manchester-based Ramadhan Foundation.

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the organisation, said the community rejected any violence or threat of violence, and said the incident “will now be hijacked by those who have an interest in perpetuating an image of Muslims”.

Mr Shafiq continued: “It is alarming that the Department for Education chose to amplify those divisions by attacking the parents and pupils rather than looking how we can come together to have a respectful discussion and seek an end to this issue.

“There is still time for calmer heads amongst the department and we urge them to seek language that brings us together and address the issue without deflecting.

“The education sector has a duty to protect the needs of all pupils and we are heartened that the school leaders recognise the pain and suffering caused by this incident.”

Mr Shafiq added that he condemned the cartoon “in the strongest terms” and was saddened that the teacher did not consider the hurt it could cause.

The DfE spokeswoman said: “It is never acceptable to threaten or intimidate teachers. We encourage dialogue between parents and schools when issues emerge.

“However, the nature of protest we have seen, including issuing threats and in violation of coronavirus restrictions are completely unacceptable and must be brought to an end.

“Schools are free to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their curriculum, including where they are challenging or controversial, subject to their obligations to ensure political balance.

“They must balance this with the need to promote respect and tolerance between people of different faiths and beliefs, including in deciding which materials to use in the classroom.”

West Yorkshire Police previously said they were called to the protest at around 7.30am on Thursday.

A police spokesman said the school road was closed for a short time, no arrests were made and no fines were issued.

In a statement, Batley Grammar School headteacher Gary Kibble said: “The school unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate resource in a recent religious studies lesson.

“The member of staff has also given their most sincere apologies.

“We have immediately withdrawn teaching on this part of the course and we are reviewing how we go forward with the support of all the communities represented in our school.

“It is important for children to learn about faiths and beliefs, but this must be done in a sensitive way.

“The member of staff has been suspended pending an independent formal investigation.”