Government failed to set up extremism ‘task force’ that would have responded to Batley school row

Exclusive: Government has ‘done nothing’ to act on recommendations from 2019 report it commissioned

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 26 March 2021 22:22 GMT
Gavin Williamson condemns protest at school where Muhammad cartoon shown in religious studies class

The government has not acted on official calls to create a “hateful extremism task force” that could respond to incidents such as the storm over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad being shown at a Yorkshire school, The Independent can reveal.

The Commission for Countering Extremism recommended the creation of the task force 18 months ago, alongside a host of other measures aimed at protecting safety and community cohesion.

But the government has not responded to the report, which was commissioned by the Home Office and cited protests over LGBT+ relationships education at Birmingham schools among the type of “extremism incidents” requiring a coordinated response.

In Batley, demonstrations have been sparked by claims a religious studies teacher showed students a cartoon from the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo which is deemed offensive to the Islamic faith.

Batley Grammar School was closed on Friday following two days of protests at its gates, and the Department for Education has condemned “threats and intimidation” towards teachers.

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Far-right groups including Britain First have been capitalising on the row, organising complaints to the headteacher and claiming that British schools are “being made to bow down to Sharia law”.

Baroness Warsi, former chair of the Conservative Party, said the incident had been “hijacked by extremists on both sides” to create a culture war.

The teacher who showed pupils the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is believed to have gone into hiding over safety fears.

“In a free society, we want religions to be taught to children and for children to be able to question and query them,” said the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick.

“We shouldn't have teachers, members of staff of schools, feeling intimidated, and the reports that a teacher may even be in hiding is very disturbing.”

On Thursday, the school apologised for showing “totally inappropriate” material to children and said a member of staff was suspended pending an investigation.

Protesters take part in a prayer outside Batley Grammar School in Batley, West Yorkshire

Tracey Brabin, the MP for Batley and Spen, condemned those who “seek to fan the flames of this incident”, and welcomed the school's apology.

“No teacher should be facing intimidation or threats, there is no excuse for that,” she said.

Me & You Education, a group which provides training on tolerance and mutual understanding in schools, called for communities to “resist narratives of division and hate” and balance freedom of expression with respect for religious beliefs.

In a joint statement, imam Irfan Chishti and former far-right activist Ivan Humble said: “It is important to acknowledge the hurt and anger that the depiction of the Prophet has caused among the Muslim community.

“People have the right to feel aggrieved and to express their anger – but this should not be at the expense of civility, responsibility and the law.”

It comes five months after a teacher in France, Samuel Paty, was beheaded after showing students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

A terrorist targeted Mr Paty after an outraged parent’s Facebook posts snowballed into police complaints and spread across social media.

Tributes to slain history teacher Samuel Paty in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris, in October 2020

The cartoons were also from the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which was the target of a 2015 terror attack that left 12 victims dead.

The Commission for Countering Extremism’s flagship report, published in October 2019, said the British government had “failed to support headteachers by responding to protests and other issues quickly and resolutely”.

“Leadership in government needs to improve,” it added. “The home secretary should chair a counter hateful extremism task force that regularly brings together leading figures inside and outside government. This task force should oversee development of the new strategy and respond to extremism incidents.”

The report cited 2019 protests over the teaching of LGBT+ relationships in Birmingham schools as a “case study of hateful extremism”, of the type a task force should respond to.

The commission noted that, like in Batley, “some of the protests’ most active instigators do not have children at the school”, and that pupils had suffered from closures forced by protests.

In the Birmingham case, some teachers reported being fearful and anxious, and suffering mental health problems.

“Recognising how hateful extremism manifests in our country or how local tensions in our towns and cities can be exploited is necessary to help ensure the most appropriate response,” the commission’s report said, calling for “more effective interventions and response by both government and civil society”.

The Home Office has not yet formally responded to the recommendations, or a separate report calling for new laws to close gaps that are being “exploited” by extremists.

The criminal justice consultancy Crest Advisory has warned that extremism was growing in the UK because of a “weak” government response to the threat.

Chief executive Harvey Redgrave told The Independent he was “baffled and surprised” by the Home Office’s lack of action.

“The government appears to have done nothing to act on the recommendations and have let that report sit on a shelf, despite establishing the commission to drive counter-extremism work,” he said.

“It’s been complete silence. Counter-extremism is something that politicians and this government have talked about a lot and not done very much on.”

Mr Redgrave said that despite the commission’s recommendations for change, there was still no official definition of extremism and police were “confused” about the issue and what their role should be.

“Across government, there seems to be an ambiguity and a lack of urgency,” he added. “Extremism is one of the big challenges we face as a country.”

The Home Office said it was still considering the Commission for Countering Extremism's recommendations.

The Department of Education said it was aware of the events taking place at Batley Grammar School, and had been in contact with the school and local authority.

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