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West Midlands school criticised after death threats to gay Muslim speaker

Report says Wood Green Academy failed to teach controversial issues in a safe way after Khakan Qureshi challenged by students

Khakan Qureshi was questioned on his views about homosexuality and Islam when he was invited to speak at Wood Green Academy. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

A West Midlands school has been criticised for failing to “teach controversial issues in a way that is safe for everyone”, after a gay Muslim speaker was challenged by students and later received death threats on social media.

An external report on Wood Green Academy in Wednesbury was commissioned after the incident in November last year, in which students questioned the speaker on his views about homosexuality and Islam.

Khakan Qureshi, founder of the Birmingham Asian LGBT group, was invited to the school’s sixth form to speak on “diversity in the face of adversity”, but the session appeared to descend into chaos, videos posted on social media showed.

After Qureshi said there wasn’t anything in the Qur’an that said homosexuality was a sin, students could be heard saying he was “offending people” and “advocating the wrong thing”.

Teachers intervened, with one describing the students’ comments as “homophobia” and another using a reference to 9/11 to explain how the UK was a “tolerant society”.

The incident at the school of 1,500 students led to parents forming the Wood Green Academy Action Group, which said pupils were fearful about returning to school after the incident.

An independent report, sent to parents last month and seen by the Guardian, concluded: “There is clear evidence there is insufficient awareness and experience to be able to deliver the teaching of controversial issues in a way that is safe for everyone.”

It also found the session had been “extremely damaging to relationships within and beyond the school”, and the incident had been blamed on “behavioural issues” without consideration of wider issues.

It said the school must urgently repair the relationships that have been damaged, review student voice processes and ensure staff receive training on how to work in diverse contexts.

The action group, which says it represents more than 300 parents, said the incident was the latest in a long line of concerns about the school, and their frustration was directed towards how the school had handled the situation rather than the speaker himself.

“Our concern is that this guest speaker was unfairly placed in an uncomfortable situation, and we actually demand the school to apologise to him,” a representative from the group said.

“We came together because we wanted to control and manage people’s frustrations and anger, and channel it in the correct way, rather than go outside school and have all these demonstrations, it only affects the children and the school.”

The group said it had collected other complaints from pupils and parents, including a pupil being harassed for wearing a long skirt and headscarf, the school refusing to create a designated prayer room, mothers being denied entry to the school while wearing a veil and teachers failing to intervene in bullying.

One ex-student said his younger sister was one of the pupils called homophobic by a teacher in the video, before she was directed to a staff office where she started crying.

“They need to earn the trust of the students back. It’s not there,” the former pupil, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “Students feel they need to record everything on their phone, whenever they’re spoken to by a teacher, in case something goes wrong.”

The school said it had received just under 30 complaints from parents, and that pupils were not permitted to record staff.

The action group said it had sought the advice of a legal team, and was pushing the Department for Education (DfE) to launch another review, but was committed to working with the school.

“We want to work with the school, not against it, but at the moment what they’re doing feels like a tick-box exercise,” a representative said. “We want some real accountability. We got a report, but we still feel like nothing is happening. They say they’re engaging, but nobody is believing that engagement.

“We just want parents to be heard, and students to be safe and have their faith respected.”

Qureshi said although the clips posted on social media showed only a snippet of his two hours in the classroom, which also included some reasonable debate with pupils, he had found the incident distressing.

“I know that they are young people, and young people do have questions, but it was the element of hostility that bothered me,” he said.

He said he had received death threats and online abuse when the clips went viral on TikTok, but had received no “formal apology from the school itself or any support” and the external report, which he was not consulted on, had made for difficult reading.

“It did lay the blame with the school and the teachers more than anything, and I’m not sure that’s helpful,” he said. “To me it’s quite worrying that the mindset of my childhood in the 70s and 80s, that you cannot be gay Muslim, continues here in the 21st century in the UK.”

Qureshi said he believed the incident showed the need for a review into the introduction of compulsory relationship, sex and health education in 2020.

“I thought with the implementation of RSE things would have changed,” he said. “I thought pupils would have had a better understanding, or at least a willingness to understand, these issues. We need a review to see if it’s working.”

In the video clips of the incident, pupils can be heard saying Qureshi was “advocating the wrong thing” and asking him: “Do you agree that being gay and Muslim is wrong?”

In a separate clip, a teacher can be seen telling students: “I’ve had enough. We live in a diverse and tolerant country. Twenty-one years ago a group of Muslims smashed airplanes into buildings to kill thousands of people. At that stage people stood up and said we should not condemn Muslims for what a few have done, because we are a tolerant society.”

He went on to say that if the students “cannot live with the ethos of the school”, which is to “allow people to live the way they want”, then they could attend a faith school instead.

A spokesperson for the school said pupils were taught “the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. We promote equality of opportunity and diversity effectively”. “However, we accept that we did not get it right on this occasion. That is why we initiated an external and independent investigation into this incident and why we have apologised for the upset caused. We repeat that apology today. “Since the incident, we have done a great deal to ensure the best possible relationships between staff, students and the local community, and that work is ongoing. Our action plan is being implemented and includes wide-ranging high-quality training for staff, improving student voice, widening parent surveys, holding inter-faith assemblies, and increasing the number of student-led events.”

They said that, after discussion with the DfE, the school had commissioned a separate and whole school safeguarding review of which it is awaiting the outcome.

By Jessica Murray

Wed 22 Mar 2023 - The Guardian



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