How authorities damaged community cohesion by letting the teacher from Batley down - Bill Carmichael

One of the most under-reported scandals of recent years is the case of a religious studies teacher from Batley who was forced into hiding with his young family three years ago because of threats to his life from Islamist extremists.

He remains in hiding to this day, his life completely ruined, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and with suicidal feelings, and yet nobody has been held accountable for his disgraceful treatment.

A government-commissioned report published this week by Dame Sara Khan concludes that the teacher has been badly let down by West Yorkshire Police, Kirklees council, Batley Grammar School, his union, and local politicians.

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The saga began in March 2021 when the teacher, who has not been named, delivered a lesson to Year 9 pupils on free speech and blasphemy that included pictures of Jesus Christ, the Pope and the Prophet Mohammed.

Protesters give a statement to members of the media outside Batley Grammar School in Batley. PIC: PAProtesters give a statement to members of the media outside Batley Grammar School in Batley. PIC: PA
Protesters give a statement to members of the media outside Batley Grammar School in Batley. PIC: PA

The lesson had been signed off by the school’s senior management and had been taught for two previous years without any problems.

A single parent complained, warning the teacher in a phone call that there would be “repercussions”, and a mob of 40 to 50 people descended on the school, whipped up by social media, to demand the teacher be sacked.

The school immediately capitulated by suspending the teacher and sending out a letter to parents of all 1,000 pupils apologising for showing the image.

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Far from cooling things down, this escalated matters. It was, the teacher told Dame Sara, like “throwing petrol on a flame”, and the protests continued, forcing the school to suspend face to face teaching and move all lessons online.

The teacher meanwhile was subjected to increasingly violent threats. His name, picture and address were shared on social media, including by a local Muslim charity, and he was forced to move into squalid temporary accommodation where his children slept on mattresses on the floor and had to miss school.

Dame Sara notes that all this happened a few months after the murder of teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded by an Islamist extremist in a Paris suburb after he showed a picture of the Prophet Mohammed to his class. Despite this West Yorkshire Police decided the Batley teacher faced “the lowest level of threat”.

Eventually, the teacher was forced to move his family out of West Yorkshire, away from the town he was brought up in and a job he loved.

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An independent enquiry commissioned by the Batley Multi Academy Trust later cleared the teacher of any wrongdoing, finding the lesson was in line with national guidance and that the teachers believed the image served an educational purpose and was not used with the intention of causing offence.

The teacher told Dame Sara that he felt “totally isolated and abandoned” and he had received no immediate support from the police, Kirklees council, the local MP, the school and the academy trust.

Dame Sara is particularly critical of the heavy reliance by the school and police on self-appointed “community leaders” who did not have children at the school, and who claim to represent entire communities. She writes this is “deeply counterproductive and in fact undermines cohesion and those Muslim voices who seek to come to a peaceful outcome”.

Even more worryingly she found evidence of predominantly male activists “aggressively interfering” with everyday teaching in schools in the area, banning religious books and influencing class discussions and debates, and she called on Kirklees council and other agencies to robustly challenge such figures.

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West Yorkshire Police is criticised for failing to make it clear that any threatening, harassing or intimidatory behaviour against the teacher and other staff would not be tolerated, and those making the threats would experience the full force of the law.

Dame Sara said that a 150-metre exclusion zone should be set up outside schools, within which most forms of protest would be banned. She also recommended that a new independent office for social cohesion be set up to advise the government on community relations.

Events such as this one in Batley clearly have a chilling impact on everyone’s freedom. The review polled more than 1,000 people around the UK and found that 76 per cent felt they had restricted expressing their personal views in public out of fear of harassment.

By behaving in such a cowardly manner the school, the police, local MPs and Kirklees council damaged community cohesion, restricted our freedoms and encouraged extreme and violent behaviour.

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