Khan review: How teacher in blasphemy row was ‘totally and utterly failed’

'Lessons to be learnt' after religious studies teacher forced into hiding, report says, but trust criticises 'inaccuracies'

'Lessons to be learnt' after religious studies teacher forced into hiding, report says, but trust criticises 'inaccuracies'

File image of protests outside Batley Grammar School over a teacher's use of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.

A teacher driven into hiding in fear for his life was “totally and utterly failed”, a government adviser has said, after her review into social cohesion in England found he was “let down” by his school, council and police force amid a blasphemy lesson row.

Dame Sara Khan’s damning report, published this morning, accuses Batley Multi Academy Trust, Kirklees Council and West Yorkshire Police of failings relating to the high-profile case at Batley Grammar School, in Kirklees, in March 2021.

It saw protests erupt outside the school gates after the religious studies teacher showed year nine pupils “a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban containing a cartoon bomb” as part of a religious studies lesson.

He was subjected to a “campaign of intimidation and abuse”, including “incitement to violence against both him and his family” who feared for their lives. They had to move into temporary accommodation, with his children sleeping on mattresses and missing months of school.

The trust suspended the teacher and apologised for the offence caused amid the furore, but an independent probe later cleared him of any wrongdoing. 

Batley Grammar School sign

“In failing to understand the seriousness of the incident, he was let down by all the agencies involved,” Khan said, adding it is “vital that lessons are learnt to help improve support and guidance for schools”. She said on Sunday he had been “totally and utterly failed”.

Her report has recommended several new policies for government, including a protest buffer zone around schools and for figures to be collected on the extent of teacher harassment.

Trust criticises ‘factual inaccuracies’

However the trust cited “factual inaccuracies” in the review, saying it does not “recognise much of what is in it, its description of the events, nor the characterisation of our school and community”. 

They said government was informed of the issues prior to publication, but none were corrected. The trust did not respond to several requests to explain which information was incorrect.

In a statement, a spokesperson added they were also “surprised that the authors of a report on social cohesion decided that the right thing to do was name our school and identify some individuals”.

“However, our school and community is in a very positive place and we know that this report will not upset that.”

The offending image “aimed to facilitate discussion” on how to deal with and respond to issues of free speech and blasphemy, the review stated.

While not explicitly banned in the Quran, images of the Prophet Muhammad are generally prohibited in Islam.

The lesson had been taught for two years and was part of the school’s curriculum, signed off by the senior leadership team (SLT). 

After complaints about the lesson, the school’s SLT sent a letter to all parents the next day “apologising for the image used” without first consulting the RS teacher, the review stated.

Islamist and far-right websites quickly “hijacked the incident, worsening the growing tensions and anger”, Khan said. 

Between 40 or 50 people rallied outside the school on March 25, 2021, amid calls for the teacher’s resignation on social media. He was told not to go into school amid safety fears.

The teacher was flooded with threatening messages on social media, with pictures of him and his partner, his home, car and name circulated online.

A local charity called Purpose of Life published an open letter naming the teacher, later removing it from its social media after an intervention by the Charity Commission, the review stated.

He reported the protests to West Yorkshire Police but was “unhappy” with the force’s alleged “lack of concern”. So he fled West Yorkshire with his family.

On March 25, the teacher was suspended and “could not communicate with members of staff because of suspension procedure guidelines”.

The same day, senior leaders issued an apology at a press conference, while announcing an independent investigation.

Amid ongoing protests, the trust closed the school and moved to online learning. Meanwhile, a petition calling for the RS teacher to be reinstated had reached 60,000 signatures.

‘Trauma left him feeling suicidal’

Dame Sara Khan

The trust appointed an independent panel to investigate the incident.

But Khan said this “did not include consideration of the wider context, the impact on the teacher, the implications for social cohesion or the appropriateness of the response by the school and statutory agencies”.

The panel found the lesson was taught “in line with national guidance and local authority area agreements”. 

The image was used as part of the “controversial issues” topic of the RS curriculum for year nine pupils.

It added that “the image was included to initiate a discussion about the meaning of ‘blasphemy’ within the secure confines of a classroom setting” and that “teaching staff who developed and delivered the lesson genuinely believed that using the image had an educational purpose and benefit, and that it was not used with the intention of causing offence.”

In her report, Khan found a “wide-spread phenomenon of extreme forms of harassment leading individuals into silence, self-censoring, or abandoning their democratic rights”.

She warned “numerous intimidatory protests outside schools” had left “teaching staff and pupils frightened”.

For the Batley teacher, the incident had a “permanent and profound effect on the life of the teacher and his family”. 

He is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “He felt ‘totally isolated’ and ‘abandoned’, stating he received no immediate support or any recognition of a duty of protection or care” from authorities, the review stated.

“The trauma of his experience combined with the lack of support and care by the above agencies left him feeling suicidal,” she added.

His family were placed into temporary accommodation, which “he felt was squalid and unsuitable for living”. His children “had to sleep on mattresses on the floor” and missed out on months of schooling. 

‘Lessons to be learnt’

Khan recognised “the difficult situation” the school and headteacher found themselves in, and that its “priority was to ensure children’s education was not disrupted”.

But she stressed the school also had a “duty to the safety and wellbeing” of staff.

She said the school leadership “stressed that decisions were made under extreme pressure at the beginning of the crisis as it unfolded”. 

And despite him later being cleared of wrongdoing, “it was the trust’s view that the use of the actual image in the lesson was inappropriate because of the potential offense it could cause”, she said.

The trust told Khan it had provided counselling support for “several months” following the incident, but he said he only attended one “counter-productive” session.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said schools play a “pivotal role in dealing with these challenges and promoting community cohesion.

“They do an amazing job of managing sensitive and complex situations in an age of polarised views fanned by the flames of social media. They are the glue that holds communities together and deserve a great deal of credit for this work.”

The review highlighted several “lessons to be learnt”, including whether suspending the teacher was the right move as “optically, some protestors saw (this) as a win against a blasphemer”. This also created a feeling of “isolation”, the report added.

It suggested the school should have instead paused the specific blasphemy lesson until the independent investigation concluded.

The reviewer said engagement with “self-appointed ‘community leaders’ who were not neutral nor have children at the school was unnecessary and counterproductive”.

At the press conference, she said it should have been made clear the “image was used as part of a lesson about blasphemy to facilitate discussion in the safety of a classroom”, for context. 

More should also have been done to “make clear that threatening and intimidatory messages to teaching staff will not be tolerated and would be reported to the police”.

Khan said the “lack of national guidance and support for schools in advising how best to respond to such incidents is inadequate”.

“The Department for Education cannot expect teachers to teach controversial issues without guidance and support if teachers then find themselves targeted or threatened,” she added, calling for a new “cohesion” unit that could bring together advice and more support for schools.

Council and police ‘failed’ teacher

The teacher claims he received “‘zero support and help from the council’.”

According to the review, “council officials believe the approach taken by the school was the right one… Like the school, they felt it was important to ensure school lessons and the children’s education were not disrupted.” It also wanted to maintain community cohesion, she said.

The council did not have any direct contact with him, “nor did they assess the wellbeing or impact on his children”. 

“They did not make any public comment and believed putting out any kind of statement would have been counterproductive,” the review added.

Khan said the council had regular communication with the police and were “being guided by them in relation to the threat assessment and appropriate response”. 

But the force “did not suggest there was a significant risk to the teacher”.

In October 2020, six months before the Batley incident, teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by a jihadist near his school in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression. 

But the teacher “did not have any confidence that the police understood the potential risk and serious harm he was in”.

“After he relocated, he visited a police station for help, and they remarked that he had ‘made it harder for them by moving’ as the incident occurred under a different police force,” the review states. 

“He eventually had a DCI who helped him change the number plates on his car and who told him they considered there was a serious threat to his life. 

“He has never been told by the police if the investigation has closed or if any progress has been made in arresting those who threatened him.”

‘Teacher not considered a victim of crime’

Khan said officers “failed to understand the seriousness of the charge of blasphemy, the (freedom-restricting harassment) he was subjected to and the censoring effect it had”.

Experienced police officers consulted for the review were “critical” of the force’s response.

They highlighted its “lack of public robust messaging” to make “clear threatening, harassing or intimidatory behaviour against the teacher and other teaching staff would not be tolerated”.

Khan added that “treating this as a neighbourhood incident was a mistake due to the seriousness of the blasphemy charge”.

At the time of writing, she was not aware of anyone being arrested for the harassment he experienced.

“Despite being cleared of any malicious intent by an independent investigation, our review of his case demonstrates that he was not considered a victim of crime, he was not entitled to, nor did he receive any of the provisions set out in the Victims Code,” said Khan. She called for the code to be re-examined.

A Kirklees Council spokesperson said they will “look carefully at the recommendations and any lessons to be learned”.

A West Yorkshire Police spokesperson added it has noted “the recommendations, which we will be reviewing with our partner agencies”.

Overall, Khan said it is “evident that there is a need to improve training among statutory agencies on dealing with such incidents and the need to take a victim centred approach.”

The review also called for the DfE to collect and publish figures of the scale of targeting and harassment experienced by schools and teachers.

A DfE spokesperson said: “It is unacceptable for any member of school staff to face harassment when going about their job teaching our young people. But we also recognise the extremely challenging circumstances schools can face when community tensions escalate.

“That is why we have committed to producing guidance for schools on how to prevent and tackle bullying and harassment of school staff, and will be working to develop a network of advisors to schools to ensure there are independent, trusted voices available when issues arise.

“We thank Dame Sara Khan for her report will respond in full before summer recess.”

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Freddie Whittaker

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