Leading article: Let children sing carols and light the menorah

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Herald angels sing in David's City, shepherds watch poor men gathering winter fuel, and a Birmingham maths teacher gets upset. The sight of Muslim children singing Christian celebration songs proved rather too much for one Muslim teacher. Israr Khan cried out to Allah, the audience started booing, and Christian parents took offence. Hardly a great start to the season of goodwill.

Given the ongoing discrimination against Islam in Britain's schools, it is perhaps unsurprising that one fervent Muslim decided he had heard one "Oh Little Town" too many. The Government still insists - inappropriately - that all schools hold a daily act of Christian worship. And although the state funds Catholic schools, Church of England Schools and Jewish schools, there are still no Muslim schools with government financial support.

Even so, for all that there may be genuine Muslim gripes against the hold of Christianity over state education, the Birmingham maths teacher went too far. There is nothing wrong with a good Christmas sing-song, and most families, whatever their religion, should be glad for their children to participate. School carol services tread a narrow line between being an act of Christian worship, a cultural celebration and educational experience. But so long as they tumble out on the right side of that line, they should be a great experience for all the children concerned.

Forcing children to worship a foreign faith against their own or their parents wishes certainly isn't acceptable. But nobody does that. All parents are at liberty to withdraw their children. Nor can schools get away with assuming all their pupils are Christians these days. Teachers are mostly acutely sensitive to the different belief systems and cultural backgrounds of the pupils in their care.

Indeed, most schools already handle the modern clash of cultures admirably. The fact that the Government insists on state schools holding a daily acts of Christian worship does not make life easier. Compulsory Christian gatherings are inappropriate in most schools, where children come from all kinds of religious backgrounds, and many parents either don't believe in any God at all, call him by a different name, or have very strong views within a particular strand of Christianity.

In practice, though, most schools sensibly sidestep the problem, by playing up the moral, ethical and cultural side of of assemblies, and playing down the belief. The procedures for opting out of the daily religious gathering are explicit and well known, so no child of another faith need endure hymn-singing and Jehovah-guiding if they don't want to. So while it would be far better if our state schools were secular institutions, as they are in France and the US, there is little point in drawing up battlelines over the issue.

Religious education is quite another matter. Learning about other religions and cultures, whether we choose to believe in them or not, is an essential part of a rounded education. RE is rightly a legal requirement. Christians should learn about Islamic traditions, Hindus about Jewish culture, and so on. Perhaps most important of all, totally secular children should have the chance to learn what it is they don't believe in.

Moreover, to understand truly other religions and cultures, we need to know not just what other people believe, but how they believe. The rituals through which others worship and celebrate their faith are as much a part of religion as the names of the Gods they believe in. Teaching religion and culture through songs, stories and drama is probably the best way to communicate it to non-believers, particularly young ones. After all, religions are not sets of propositions, they are stories from which cultures are generated which twine round each other like double helixes. Participating in a nativity play is a great way to understand the Christian faith, as a story, a drama, and a mythology, rather than a list of falsifiable statements that you can choose to accept or reject.

The Christmas theatrical tradition in Britain twists back centuries, through pantos, mystery plays, mummers plays and nativities; the lessons are cultural as much as they are religious. As Mark Santer, the Bishop of Birmingham, points out, Christmas enters the minds and imaginations of the most secular Brit, not through discussion or lecture, "but by the telling and hearing of stories, by the repetition of familiar carols and hymns, by looking at pictures. None of these describes the mystery of Christmas in a way that is either literal or exhaustive. All are more or less allusive or symbolic". Other religions should be taught and experienced in the same way. Christian children can learn much from lighting the candles at Hanukkah, or watching the televised Mahabharata, the epic of Hindu stories.

But most schools know this already. They treat religious festivals as opportunities to educate, not to force worship. Many go to great lengths to accommodate the sensitivities of different religious groups. The words of Christmas carols are changed to avoid references to "the son of God," for the birth of Jesus was after all the birth of a Muslim prophet. The Birmingham school at the centre of this week's religious clash celebrates other festivals such as the Festival of Light and Ramadan, as well as Christmas.

Mr Khan, the maths teacher, should have sat through the carol concert and enjoyed the singing, rather than perceiving the Christian songs as a threat to his own religion. And equally he should have looked forward to drawing the entire school into his own religious and cultural celebrations at other times of year. Still, perhaps Mr Khan's outburst is actually all the proof we need that our cultures and traditions are not really that far apart. After all, we all get frayed and fractious at Christmas.