How many times should I have to decide I don’t want my child to attend worship?

“nobody gives him forewarning of collective worship activities and, by the time they start, he is too nervous/scared he’s going to get in trouble to stand up and leave the assembly.”

boy prayingThe legal requirement placed on all state-funded schools in the UK to enforce a daily act of collective religious worship is a bizarre feature of our education system, and one that is rightly regarded as an illiberal and indefensible affront to freedom of religion and belief.

Well, almost indefensible. A defence of it does exist. It’s not a good defence, but it is nonetheless one that’s often parroted by exponents of this discriminatory practice. It’s called the ‘right of withdrawal’ – the option, in other words, to opt children out of the worship requirement. There are many reasons why this ‘right’ is inadequate, but chief among them is that despite the fact that parents shouldn’t have to opt their children out of compulsory religious worship in the first place, they often end up having to do so many more times than just the once.

So, before we pick up our case study, bear in mind that even before this parent got in touch with us to ask for advice, she’d effectively decided twice before that she didn’t want her child to be involved in any worship, much less forced worship. The first time was simply when she decided that she was not religious, and, as is her right, took the decision to bring up her children in line with that conviction. That should really have been the end of it.

Unfortunately, in the UK, the need for a fresh decision on this score follows shortly after when the mother, whose child has reached school age, is forced to discount a number of the state schools in her area on the grounds that those schools have a religious character that she does not share. Instead, she decides she’d like to send her child to an open and inclusive community school with no religious character or ethos, and which welcomes those of all faiths and none. Of course, given that in many parts of the country, for reasons of geography or otherwise, church schools are the only viable option for non-religious parents, this is a choice that’s not available to many, but we’ll forget that for now. The decision not to apply to a ‘faith’ school is, in effect, the second time she has decided that she doesn’t want her child to engage in worship.

This is where we pick up the case study – one of the many that we’re contacted about every week. Here, the mother who got in touch with us explains how she made decision number three, the opt out that’s written into law:

‘My nine year old son has just started year 5, and has been excused from collective worship for about a year now. When I first gave the school the letter, in person, I was told that he could miss collective worship but that nobody would be available to supervise him. I said that this was fine.’

Setting aside the fact that the school is actually legally required to supervise the child, the mother decided that for all the risk of her son feeling excluded or being singled out by his peers – one of the many important problems with the right of withdrawal – he deserved the right to be free from undue influence and religious proselytising while he was young. That, as far as the law goes, should now definitely be the end of it.

Unfortunately, and this is so often the case, the school were not particularly cooperative in facilitating the withdrawal of the child:

‘Since then, it has come to light that he has been attending collective worship in assembly because nobody gives him forewarning of collective worship activities and, by the time they start, he is too nervous/scared he’s going to get in trouble to stand up and leave the assembly.’

So where does this leave the mother? Well unfortunately, decision number three doesn’t appear to have been worth the paper it was written on, so, understandably irritated, she got in touch with the school again:

‘I was gentle with [my son] about this situation for a while, not wanting to force him into an awkward situation, but eventually, I sent a letter to the school to remind them of the exemption and to ask them to give him some warning of religious assemblies.’

That’s decision number four. Surely, with the school caught red-handed failing to comply with a legal requirement, this will be the end of it. But no:

‘The response has been that they are happy for him to avoid collective worship, but that nobody is going to forewarn him. His teacher said he doesn’t know what’s going to happen in assembly and that [he] is in year five so should be dealing with it himself.’

Decision number four, it seems, carried just about as much weight as the three that went before it.

That’s now four separate occasions on which this parent, in our liberal, democratic, and broadly secular state, has chosen to excuse her child from having to worship a god she doesn’t believe in, at a school with no registered religious character, and on all four occasions she’s been unsuccessful. This happens all the time.

Let it not be said, though, that in life there are no happy endings. Just when she thought all hope was lost, she managed to arrange a meeting with the head teacher and after an exchange of words, the school finally acquiesced. The child would be withdrawn. The fifth decision, in a meeting with a head teacher that should never have had to take place, was finally successful.

Or was it? There’s every chance she’ll have to go through all of this again at secondary school.

‘Empowering women through education’, they said. The madrasa’s actual teachings were very different

2016 05 13 LW v1 Madrasa“As free mixing was not allowed, the male teacher sat in an adjacent room to the students and used a mic to teach us.”

I went to a part time (3 hours a day, 6 days a week) madrasa that taught a seven year alimah course for girls ages 11+. We were taught Arabic, Urdu, Fiqh, Hadith, and Tafsir. The first five years were taught by female alimahs, and the final years, where we were taught the six authentic hadith collections, were taught by male alims.

This was usually said to be because female scholars were not as qualified to teach the important books. Also, as free mixing was not allowed, the male teacher sat in an adjacent room to the students and used a mic to teach us. There was a hole in the wall that separated our two rooms, which was covered by a curtain, and it would be used to pass books and things to each other, but we never saw each other.

The madrasa followed the Hanafi Deobandi school of thought, and as such its rules were usually quite strict and restricting. The dress code for all pupils was a black scarf and abaya, and a niqab which had to be worn when travelling to and from home. We were taught that the niqab was fardh (compulsory), and often girls who came in without a niqab would be sent home. Music was also prohibited, and we were told that those who listen to music would get molten lead poured into their ears in the hereafter. Talking about such punishments and the afterlife was very common, and we even had a lecture where the speaker turned the lights off and made us lie down and pretend we were in the grave, in order to scare us into being more religious.

Although the website for the madrasa states that it is dedicated to ‘empowering women through education,’ their actual teachings were very different. We were taught that as women, we were to obey our husbands, to the extent that we could not even leave the house without his permission. A woman’s position was said to be in the house, and any contact with non-mahram men was strictly prohibited. We were even told to put on deeper voices if we had to talk to a guy, so he would not be attracted to our soft feminine voices. We were also discouraged from getting jobs that were not in an Islamic setting, and the only job that was encouraged was being an Islamic teacher, which is what almost all of my former classmates have gone on to become.

There was also a lot of homophobia, and homosexuality was seen as a strange and unnatural thing. This issue was actually one of the things I first argued with my teacher about when I started doubting Islam and realised I no longer thought that it was a sin. To his credit though, he was willing to engage and listen, and admitted that if his child was not straight, he would still love them but due to Islam’s rulings, he would be forced to disown them. This teacher was in fact one of the more liberal ones, and was later fired because he was friendly with us and would sometimes bring us food if we were going to have a particularly long lesson, and other staff members thought it was inappropriate for a male to be interacting with female students in this manner.

However, although a lot of the teachers were very strict, some were more open minded. When I first began having doubts about Islam, I confided in one of my classmates and a teacher, and they were both very understanding and we are still friends – even after I eventually told them about my apostasy. Due to this, I actually loved being a student at the madrasa. I highly value the friendships I made with the other students and even some teachers, and the actual learning was both interesting and stimulating. Overall, despite the negatives, I still view my madrasa experience as a highly positive one.


‘You don’t expect a school to lie’: the truth about the Steiner school movement

“Steiner school parents became progressively withdrawn from family and friends outside the Steiner movement and gradually surrounded themselves only with those who followed the Anthroposophical belief system”

2016 05 13 LW v1 SteinerThe intoxicating fragrance of beeswax and homemade bread. Small wicker baskets full of pebbles and shells. A biodynamic vegetable garden. Wooden blocks, silk play cloths, felt slippers, sheepskins, a fireplace, faceless dolls, wordless books, formless paintings…

The fetishizing of nature and the promise of an unhurried childhood can be very appealing to the educationally anxious parent looking to be green and good. I had previously read about Steiner Waldorf schools in a glowing article in a national newspaper. It described an holistic creative education based outdoors using “nature as teacher.” Intrigued, I began by taking my son to a Steiner parent and toddler group. So enchanted was I at the time, I managed to persuade my family to move 40 miles away to be near a bigger Steiner school where our son would be able to attend long-term. I remember attending the summer fair and whilst I stood in the queue to request a prospectus, a woman in front of me asked the administrator the following question: “How will the school meet the needs of my psychic daughter?” He smiled and replied “We are all psychic here.” I thought he was joking.

Once we had moved and enrolled our son, the teacher started to mention the word “Anthroposophy” and the existence of a study group for new parents. I felt foolish that I had to ask what Anthroposophy was (I had previously looked for the word in my dictionary and had not found it) and was told it was the study of human wisdom. The teacher didn’t tell me a core belief of Anthroposophy as originally conceived is the concept of reincarnation of the soul through racial hierarchies from Black to Aryan as a consequence of a person’s karma; or the classification of a child’s soul according to their physiognomy, nor was I told of the Anthroposophical movement’s history. I didn’t question further at that stage. As one parent recently observed “You don’t expect a school to lie.”

Many alarm bells rang during our time there. I remember the intense gaze of the teachers that would continue far longer than was comfortable. There was little laughter, everything was carried out in a very slow and purposeful way with a sing-song voice, the lighting of candles, the wearing of strange hats, their infatuation with wool — I recall a felting session where the teacher spoke of the special energy of the wool, declaring it had come from a biodynamic sheep. I recall the time the teacher took both my hands in hers and explaining my son had “chosen me as his mother,” on a further occasion she stated he had “chosen the school” and that children “get what they need” – ostensibly an innocent cliché until one understands its particular meaning within Anthroposophy. I also recall politely refusing a teacher’s offer, made during a parent and toddler group session, to lend me a copy of The Indigo Children and compile an astrological chart based on my son’s birth date. Another time, when a boy enacted a scene from a Spider-Man cartoon, the teacher asked his mother why he was behaving in this way. The mother explained that her son had been playing with children who lived on the same street — children who watched television and went to the cinema — the teacher replied, “It’s best to play with children from the school community.”

I noticed that some of the Steiner school parents became progressively withdrawn from family and friends outside the Steiner movement and gradually surrounded themselves only with those who followed the Anthroposophical belief system. I remember being invited to various other self-development programmes including Landmark Education/Forum, Non-Violent Communication (also known as Compassionate Communication), the Amma movement, and Family Constellation workshops — programmes the school appeared to endorse with many of the Steiner teachers participating in them. I remember the school reception displaying numerous leaflets promoting homeopathy. Mention of vaccination was conspicuously absent. I remember asking many questions and being told I was “too in the head” and that I should “learn to think with my heart.” I recall parents asking the teacher’s advice regarding well-meaning grandparents buying electronic and plastic toys, both of which are frowned upon in Steiner schools. The teacher directed them to a specialist Steiner Waldorf toy catalogue. I began to think this was more about control than care.

I remember looking around the school one Saturday and seeing a group of children performing a strange dance in long robes (eurythmy) which brought to mind certain unsought images from my degree-level studies involving mid-20th century European history. When the teacher noticed we were watching, she stopped the children and stared at us indicating we were not supposed to be witnessing the children’s performance even though it was outside. I remember feeling quite unnerved at the time.

During one of the sessions we attended at the school, my son was violently pushed backwards off a play bridge. I understand this is not unusual, as it could happen in any nursery or school. However, as I sat there comforting my child, I noticed that the teacher who witnessed the incident didn’t respond in any way or acknowledge what happened. Instead, she continued to sew in silence. I sat there in utter disbelief. The act of ignoring felt more violent than the original act itself. Seeing that I was somewhat baffled and distressed by the teacher’s lack of concern, a parent later explained to me that the children were “working out their karma.” I remember questioning her as I couldn’t comprehend what she had just said. She explained that her sister was a Steiner Waldorf teacher in Germany and repeated that it was their karma — it was one child’s karma to push, and my child’s karma to be pushed. I later telephoned the school stating we didn’t think the education was suitable for our son.

An extended version of this piece was first published on the Waldorf Watch website under the name ‘Coming undone: unravelling the truth about the Steiner school movement’.