Frankincense, myrrh and compromise; the path to a happy Christmas for schools

When the pupils are of many faiths, celebrating religious festivals means keeping a careful balance
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In primary school halls up and down the country, Mary and Joseph will find shelter at the inn. In one Bradford school, as in many others in Britain's multi-ethnic cities, the stars of this year's nativity play will be Muslim.

Lilycroft First School, where all but two of the 400 pupils are from Muslim families, is typical in adapting the celebrations of the Christian calendar to suit its young population. "Away in a Manger" and other carols will be sung, complete with references to the birth of Jesus, but references to Christ as the son of God will be omitted to avoid conflict with Islam.

Similar compromises have been worked out by many schools with a mix of faiths to prevent the kind of incident which marred a Birmingham secondary school's rehearsal. Washwood Heath Secondary, where 60 per cent of the pupils are of Asian origin, launched an internal investigation after Israr Khan, a maths teacher, leapt from his seat and shouted to pupils watching the rehearsal "Who is your God?", prompting some to reply "Allah" and boo the mainly white choir.

The Birmingham education authority said that Mr Khan stayed at home yesterday "by mutual consent", but the carol concert on Wednesday went ahead as planned. The city council yesterday insisted that the incident should not be allowed to detract from Christmas celebrations in Birmingham's 500 schools where "pupils of all faiths are celebrating the most important date in the Christian calendar".

But the teacher's outburst rekindled the debate over schools' attempts to mark religious festivities, with traditionalists of both Islamic and Christian faiths claiming that pupils should not be forced to take part in celebrations of beliefs they did not share.

Professor Robert Jackson, director of the religions and education research unit at Warwick University, believes such incidents are likely to be rare as schools grow increasingly sensitive to the best means of balancing a respect for the faiths of pupils and parents with a desire to promote understanding of other cultures.

"Many would treat these issues very, very carefully indeed. That is not to say they would decide not to touch them at all, but it would be a process of conversation with the parent-teacher association, parent governors and others in order to win the confidence of people."

Schools decide their own policy on celebrating religious festivals, with certain guidelines and requirements covering religious education and collective worship. Much depends on the contribution of the local authority in offering advice.

Religious education specialist Professor John Hull, of Birmingham University, suggests that most schools find their own way through the faith minefield with considerable success. The mistake made by many traditionalist commentators, he believes, is to confuse the collective Christian worship schools must offer with the kind of sacred worship practised in a church, mosque or synagogue.

"In schools, pupils, parents and teachers are collected together acknowledging their differences. They never have a service that purports to represent the worship of all these people," he said.

The key for schools aiming to involve all children is to keep the emphasis on education, not worship. The law requires that teaching about non-Christian religions must not indoctrinate, allowing schools to explain the meaning of events from Passover and Eid to Diwali and Ramadan without crossing the line into active celebration.

David Parker, head of Lilycroft First School, has consulted widely with parents over religious education and worship. "Once parents realised we were not threatening to subvert anything, they were very supportive. If they trust that you are not undermining their faith then the problems don't exist."