Sunday, March 22, 2015

Parents' anger after British school bans pupils from watching the eclipse for 'cultural and religious' reasons - but the headteacher refuses to say what they are

Pupils at a primary school were banned from watching today's once-in-a-generation eclipse because of 'religious and cultural reasons', it has emerged.

Parents of children at North Primary School in Southall, London, said they were 'outraged' by the decision and claimed it showed a triumph of 'religious superstition' over scientific education.

Phil Belman, whose seven-year-old daughter goes to the school, met with interim headteacher Ivor Johnstone who said he was unable to elaborate on the decision because of 'confidentiality'.

'It's just going back to the dark ages really. My child went in having spent an hour preparing and making up her pinhole camera,' said Mr Bellman.

'This is an issue about scientific matters versus religious superstition. I am outraged — is it going to be Darwin next? We will be like mid America.

'I asked the headteacher to elaborate which religions and which cultures? But he said it had to be confidential. He referred us to the formal complaints procedure.

'What is the head's future after all of this? I consider this totally unacceptable. I think he should be considering his position.'

Many parents voiced their concerns at the fact they had not been informed of the 'last-minute' decision by the school.

Khairoe Islam, whose son goes to the school, said: 'I'm Muslim myself and in my religion it doesn't say we can't watch it.

'I don't know anything about it but if they say it's because of religion maybe they could have spoken to those people who had a problem and let the other kids enjoy it. 'It shouldn't be spoiled for the rest of the school.'

Harpreet Kaur, whose siblings go to the primary school, said: 'The school didn't say anything to us.  'They told the children it was for religious and cultural reasons and they were told they couldn't see it outside.

'I don't think it was made very clear, even to the teachers. A friend of mine who is a teacher at the school said she didn't understand it.  'I think it was quite a last-minute decision.

'It's a shame because even though it was cloudy there is still the excitement of going outside and having a look.

'There's quite a large Muslim community in the school and someone said it has something to do with that.  'I did some reading up on it but couldn't find anything. Maybe it's some obscure reason.'

Mr Johnstone admitted pupils had been prevented from watching the first solar eclipse of this century after 'religious and cultural concerns associated with observing one directly' were raised.

It is not yet clear exactly what these concerns are, but Christian ministers have raised fears that this eclipse could signal the end of the world, or a judgement from God.

Some Hindu scriptures say that an eclipse makes believers impure.  

And fundamentalists believe that they need to bathe immediately after an eclipse and chant the name of God to overcome the forces of darkness.

The headteacher said: 'The school made this decision when we became aware of religious and cultural concerns associated with observing an eclipse directly.

'Although we are sorry for any disappointment, pupils were still able to watch the eclipse on screens in classrooms. However, the overcast conditions in West London today meant they would not have been able to see it live in any case.'

Ealing Council confirmed the pupils were not allowed out of their classrooms but said they were able to see the eclipse on TV screens.

A spokesman said the council was currently investigating the claims and asked the school for further clarification about why the children were prevented from watching the eclipse.

North Primary, which is not a faith school, describes itself online as 'multicultural with a welcoming ethos'.

In the summer of July 2014, complaints made by a number of teachers led to an investigation by governors of the school.

Sometimes known as Little India, Southall is a diverse community in west London with a large Hindu population.

The school has 407 pupils on roll and around 97 per cent speak English as an additional language.

A substantial minority of them are refugees and there are a few pupils from traveller families.

The news from Southall comes after it emerged that school children across the country were forced to watch the eclipse on TV due to safety fears.

The decision by head teachers angered parents, who wanted their children to experience the rare celestial event without sitting in front of a screen.

Oldway primary school in Paignton, Devon, is one of the schools which came under fire for keeping children inside.

Head teacher Jane Smythe said she had 700 children to look after and she 'could not guarantee that they would not look at the sun'. 

Isabel Stevenson, a mother-of-four from Glasgow, added: 'So not happy about secondary school my kids go to doing NOTHING for solar eclipse tomorrow! Livid and furious. I'm on a mission today.'


Hashtagging Education in Missouri

Social media is a platform for discussion, and education policy is a popular topic. In a recent study, researchers looked at the Twitter hashtag, #commoncore. Over a six-month period, there were 25,000 to 35,000 tweets per month using the CCSS hashtag. Not surprisingly, researchers found that the discussion more often surrounded larger political issues rather than the standards themselves.

I looked at two popular Missouri education hashtags: #moedchat and #motransfers from March 9 to March 11. Using arguably less sophisticated methods, here are a few interesting things I found.

On just one of the days, most of the Twitter users participating in discussions were educators, administrators, or fell under an “other” category. At a glance, these were usually tech specialists or professional development representatives. Looking at only the #motransfers hashtag, there were seven Twitter users participating (including myself, Show-Me Distinguished Fellow James Shuls, DESE, and state house reporter Alex Stuckey).

Over a three-day period, several issues were discussed. The content was related to technology, teaching and learning, policy, and testing.

The more popular hashtag is #moedchat, despite recent legislative actions concerning interdistrict choice. From my very short and quick dive into the data, I found that Missouri educators use Twitter to find out about professional development events, as well as connect with other educators to share ideas. The area that receives the most action is teaching and learning, but connecting and promoting is second.

I’m glad to see Missouri educators engaging in Twitter. Technology is a useful tool both in and out of the classroom, but if this small glimpse is any indication of social media participation among all educators in Missouri on a daily basis, there is room for improvement.

More teachers should participate in policy conversations—140 characters can go a long way.


Let girls be girls and boys be boys for as long as possible

Single-sex schools, contrary to the stereotypes, are good for children, says Helen Fraser   

My first experience of the benefits of single-sex schooling came when I was 11, when I moved from my local primary in Leicester – where the boys pulled my plaits and generally despised me – to a girls’ grammar school. A great sense of peace and tranquillity came over me: no more playground bullying and, all of a sudden, lots of like-minded girls to talk to and play with.

When I arrived at Oxford – in the days before co-ed colleges – I again relished the sense of calm and ability to concentrate that came with living and studying in a women’s college. There were plenty of young men climbing over the walls, so it was hardly a nunnery, but I was always able to find time and space for myself.

But it’s not just girls who can benefit from single-sex education. Tony Little, the headmaster at Eton, has just said that single-sex schools are of huge benefit to both boys and girls, allowing them to enjoy childhood for longer.

Unsurprisingly, anything that keeps our otherwise ubiquitous atmosphere of precocious sexuality at bay for a few more precious years comes as a huge relief to parents, and they repeatedly tell me so. But an environment that nurtures the innocence of childhood is also incredibly important to the boys and girls themselves.

When I started to think about how I would like my stepdaughters and daughters to be educated, the obvious choices were all girls’ schools. They thrived from the age of five to 18 in a succession of schools such as Bute House, St Paul’s and South Hampstead High School. Even so, it was only in 2010, when I took up my role as chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust – a network of 24 schools and two academies educating 20,000 girls – that I specifically began asking myself the question: “Why single sex?”

Girls face huge pressures in their lives. They feel pressure to look beautiful, to perform well (and they are performing well, outstripping boys at every age and stage of education), to be talented and demonstrate their abilities under the watchful eye of peers and parents. In particular, they feel pressure to grow up – fast.

It is sad but true that being young and childish seems to fall out of favour by the age of 10. I remember one colleague, whose daughter, like me, had been at a mixed primary and then at a girls’ secondary, saying it was extraordinary how, after the move, the girl suddenly “didn’t need to wear nail polish for school any more”.

Critics complain that single-sex schools reinforce gender insecurities: boys feel doubly pressured to misbehave; girls to look good. But in my experience the reverse is true. Our girls throw themselves into sport and are happy to get hot and sweaty. They love it and they don’t care what they look like doing it – just like the wonderful women in Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign. It is a brilliant thing to see a bunch of 13-year-olds throw themselves on the floor after a particularly energetic gym session, exhausted and happy.

Head teachers in single-sex schools are experts in what makes boys and girls tick. They are sensitive to unhappiness, quick to spot any social problems and really understand what works best in the classroom. I remember one junior head commenting that a research study showed many girls who do maths “feel alone – as if they were in the middle of a huge empty space”. On the back of this, she put girls studying maths together in pairs and results soared.

Exam league tables are top-heavy with single-sex schools and prove that they achieve extraordinary things. Let girls be girls and boys be boys and we will all benefit.


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