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Batley and a blight on freedom

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THE ballot paper for the July 1 by-election in Batley and Spen will not include Laurence Fox. ‘Mr Reclaim’ announced last weekend that both he and Paul Halloran, who as an independent gained 12 per cent at the 2019 general election, wish to avoid dividing the anti-Labour alliance: ‘We cannot in good conscience stand and risk splitting the vote and condemning Batley and Spen to any more years of Labour control.’

Not that Fox and Halloran will be Tory cheerleaders. On the contrary, during the next few weeks they intend to use the hustings to highlight a subject which the Conservative candidate, Ryan Stephenson, doubtless would prefer to avoid: ‘Although we are not standing in the by-election, we will be using it to raise the issue of Batley Grammar School, tolerance and freedom of speech.’

This is welcome news, because the episode at Batley Grammar raises crucial questions regarding intolerant intimidation, about which the main parties should not be allowed to equivocate. In his weekend statement, Fox said: ‘A man’s life is now at risk and he has had to go into hiding with his family. As a nation, we should be ashamed that this has happened. The school, the teacher’s union, the Government and the Labour Party have shown abject cowardice in their refusal to address this issue.’

To recap, the teacher was suspended in March for having shown depictions of Muhammad to a religious studies class. The invertebrate school head, Gary Kibble, immediately disowned his staff member and genuflected to the medieval militants protesting at the gates: ‘The school unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate image in a recent religious studies lesson. It should not have been used.’ https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/batley-head-teacher-issues-unequivocal-20256891

Not that grovelling Gary’s appeasement satisfied the fundamentalists. In an unhinged open letter to Kibble, the local Islamic ‘charity’ Purpose of Life reprimanded the faint-hearted head: ‘Whilst the school has issued an unreserved apology, for Muslims this does not go far enough.’

An obscure West Yorkshire pressure group apparently speaks for all followers of Islam – who knew? Much more menacing, though, was Purpose of Life’s provocative naming of the teacher and its demand that he be ‘permanently removed’ – purposely reckless rhetoric which forced the teacher and his family into hiding.

The teacher’s useless union, the NEU, cravenly claimed to be ‘working to resolve rather than inflame’. Timorous Tracy Brabin, the outgoing Labour MP for Batley and Spen, and now mayor of West Yorkshire, pathetically pandered to her party’s client vote: ‘The upset and offence this has caused is understandable but it was also predictable. I am pleased that the school has recognised it was inappropriate and apologised for the offence caused.’ 

Batley Grammar is one of five schools overseen by Batley Multi Academy Trust. Its website prominently features the usual boastful boilerplate: ‘Passionately committed to securing exceptional educational outcomes . . . generating high aspirations for all learners . . . celebrating community cohesion’. 

In March the board of trustees suspended the targeted teacher (plus two others) pending an ‘external independent investigation’, though by whom remains unclear. During the last week of May, the Trust announced that it had ‘accepted the key recommendations’, the summary of which can be read here.

The Trust accepted that the imagery ‘was not used with the intention of causing offence’ and has told the excluded teacher that he is free to resume his job at Batley Grammar. But it is impossible to imagine him doing so: not only was he treated shoddily by the school, it would require enormous courage – some would say foolhardiness – to revisit the scene where the intimidating Islamists gathered to demand his dismissal.

At this point, being coaxed from his hideout and invited back to Batley seems like further punishment – especially as the board of trustees devoted the rest of its supine statement to mollifying the Muhammadan mob.

Despite concluding that there had been no wrongdoing, the Trust nonetheless ‘deeply regrets the distress this has caused’ and ‘is committed to ensuring that offence is not caused’. To avoid further ‘distress’ or ‘offence’, the Board has indulged the Islamists by guaranteeing no repeat: ‘In respect of the views of our school community, the Trust is clear that it is not necessary for staff to use the material in question to deliver the learning outcomes on the subject of blasphemy.’

In other words, for the sake of its treasured ‘community cohesion’, the schools managed by Batley Multi Academy Trust will now operate a de facto blasphemy law.

This scandalous situation should startle everyone who values tolerance and freedom of speech, not just politicians such as Laurence Fox and Paul Halloran. Nor is it a localised problem: a trainee teacher at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), alarmed by the episode in Batley and ‘extremely concerned about the cowardly response from the unions and other bodies connected to teaching’, astonishingly was investigated for his ‘fitness to practise’ and was summoned to ‘a cause for concern meeting’. 

Aided by Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, the student teacher is in the clear – at least for the moment. However, one wonders what sort of reference from MMU will follow him around and whether, when seeking a teaching post, he will find that the educational establishment has already marked his card.

Certainly, he need not bother applying to a certain school in West Yorkshire. At Batley Grammar, officialdom’s servile surrender to fanatical fundamentalism has been, in the words of Laurence Fox, ‘a blight on our free, tolerant, fair and democratic society’.

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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