Jenrick weighs in on Prophet cartoon row: ‘Issues should not be censored’

‘This is a country based on free speech and teachers should be able to tackle difficult and controversial issues’

Robert Jenrick says 'issues should not be censored' amid Muhammad cartoon row

A Cabinet minister has attacked curbs on teaching amid the controversy over children being shown a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, saying “issues should not be censored”.

Protests broke out outside a West Yorkshire school on Thursday as parents complained that the image had been taken from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Batley Grammar School apologised over the “inappropriate” image, shown during a religious studies class this week, and suspended a teacher – who is now reported to be in hiding.

But Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said: “This is a country based on free speech and teachers should be able to tackle difficult and controversial issues in the classroom – and issues should not be censored.”

The minister said he did not know “exactly what happened in the classroom”, making it “difficult for me to comment, with confidence”.

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But he said the protest outside the school gates – also condemned by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary – was “reminiscent to the scenes that we saw in France”.

“Most importantly, it’s absolutely unacceptable for teachers and staff in our schools to be threatened or intimidated,” Mr Jenrick told LBC Radio.

“We need to ensure that there is tolerance and respect, but I was troubled by the scenes I saw outside the school gates.

“We don’t want to see those coming to work in our schools, children or parents, feeling threatened or intimidated when they’re coming into school, just because a difficult issue has been tackled in the classroom.”

At the school, people gathered around the gates amid shouts of “get the head teacher”, although there were no arrests or fines issued for breaches of the coronavirus restrictions.

Parents said they had attended “to show the country Islamophobia won’t be tolerated” and that the image “is so offensive to us”.

Garry Kibble, Batley’s head teacher, announced the suspension of the staff member pending an independent formal investigation.

“The school unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate resource in a recent lesson,” he said in a statement.

“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.”

Mr Williamson intervened on Thursday evening, a spokesman 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, is completely unacceptable and must be brought to an end.”

Schools “are free to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their curriculum, including where they are challenging or controversial, subject to their obligations to ensure political balance”, the spokesman said.

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