Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has condemned “completely unacceptable” protests outside a school in West Yorkshire after a teacher was suspended for showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in class.
At least 50 demonstrators congregated at Batley Grammar School on Thursday, with images on social media showing the crowd partially blocking the road.
The protests were organised after it was claimed a cartoon, reportedly an image previously published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was shown during a religious studies class.
West Yorkshire Police said the street outside the school had been closed for a short time. No arrests were made and no fines were issued.
The school’s headteacher, Gary Kibble, apologised and said an investigation had been launched.
However, Mr Williamson defended the school, saying: “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.”
He added that schools “are free to include a full range of … ideas and materials in their curriculum, including where they are challenging or controversial,” but that they “must balance this with the need to promote respect and tolerance between people of different faiths and beliefs.”
Earlier, headteacher Mr Kibble said the school “unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate resource in a recent religious studies lesson,” adding: “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“We have immediately withdrawn teaching on this part of the course and we are reviewing how we go forward with the support of all the communities represented in our school.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 faith and beliefs, but this must be done in a sensitive way.
“The member of staff has been suspended pending an independent formal investigation.”
Charlie Hebdo has long been a subject of controversy, coming under criticism for publishing cartoons considered by some to be racist or Islamophobic. Its Paris offices were stormed by gunmen aligned to Islamic State in 2015, in an attack which killed 12 people.
In October 2020, French teacher Samuel Paty was murdered and beheaded by an Islamist terrorist after he showed a series of Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression.
Dr Abdul Shaikh, a local academic in Batley and Muslim activist, told PA: “I was shocked like many Muslims in the town that Muslim school children’s religious sensitivities were completely ignored by the school teacher who decided to show an offensive image that lampooned the noble Prophet Muhammad.
“Every Muslim around the world holds the Prophet in the highest esteem.
“I feel that the school should be allowed to complete their investigation in due course and find a fair and adequate solution that satisfies first and foremost Muslim pupils, their parents and the wider Muslim community in Batley.
“This situation should not be allowed to happen again for the sake of community cohesion in the area.”
However, the National Secular Society branded the protest as an “attempt to impose an Islamic blasphemy taboo on a school”.
Stephen Evans, chief executive of the society, said: “Teachers must have a reasonable degree of freedom to explore sensitive subjects and enable students to think critically about them.
“And the school’s weak response will fuel a climate of censorship, which is brought on by attempts to force society as a whole to accommodate unreasonable and reactionary religious views.”