A primary school in the United Kingdom is facing allegations of discrimination and profiling after images of a “counter-extremism test” were circulated on social media, angering local Muslims who feel it targets their faith and raising questions about a program designed to “identify the initial seeds of radicalization” in children.
Last week, several Muslim advocates began tweeting images of a questionnaire handed out to students of the Buxton School, a primary school in East London. The test outraged many for its loaded questions, which appeared geared toward extracting specific information about religious students. One asked respondents to pick three words that best describe them from a defined list, mixing labels such as “Student” and “British” alongside three faith identities — Christian, Hindu, and Muslim. Another instructed students to mark whether they agreed, disagreed, or weren’t sure about hypothetical statements, such as “I believe my religion is the only correct one,” “God has a purpose for me,” and “I would mind if a family of a different race or religion moved next door.”
“[The test is] creating a climate of fear/ mistrust. Marginalizing Muslims and ethnics. Mandatory acceptance of ‘British Values’” one online commentator tweeted.
A picture of the exam is below:
— Media Diversified (@WritersofColour) May 27, 2015
As controversy brewed, the Buxton School attempted to calm anxious parents by publishing a statement on May 22 from the Executive Head Teacher. The letter explained the exam was part of the Building Resilience through Integration & Trust (BRIT) project, a voluntary pilot program for schools in the area paid for by the European Commission.
“As parents you will be well aware of our inclusive ethos and be surprised that this project, aimed at developing a cohesive community, has been misunderstood,” the letter read.
The true intent of the program, however, remains unclear. According to the Telegraph, the text of the program’s website has been altered since news of the test first broke. The project’s original stated purpose was reportedly “to identify the initial seeds of radicalization with children of primary school age,” but has since been deleted.
“The consequences of social exclusion, radicalization and violent extremism are far reaching and are apparent in today’s society in many forms,” the website read. The Local Authority did not return requests from ThinkProgress to explain why the language was changed.
Meanwhile, the Local Authority that oversees the program has also issued a press statement defending the project, insisting it is “in no way directed at pupils of any particular faith,” although only three faiths are listed on the questionnaire.
“We’re glad that this has sparked a debate as our aim is to encourage people to talk about the importance of cohesion at all ages,” the statement read. “Whilst the program is not designed to focus on controversial issues, it doesn’t shy away from difficult topics or conversations when they are raised by the children themselves, indeed the very nature of this program is to encourage conversation and openness.”
Others aren’t so sure. Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), said in a press release the test was “clearly racist and Islamophobic,” arguing that “there would be uproar if they had mentioned ‘Jew’ or ‘black’ in the identity question.”
IHRC also expressed concerns the questionnaire is part of the UK’s larger anti-extremism efforts such as the The Counter Terrorism and Security Act, a controversial law enacted in February, that aims to counter domestic threats. The act has been widely criticized for potentially allowing the government to restrict citizens’ rights, and has sparked outcry among teachers and professors for Section 5 of the legislation, which requires schools to find ways to prevent students being drawn into terrorism.
“The Counter Terrorism and Security Act … puts a responsibility on schools to prevent youngsters falling into the clutches of extremist groups,” IHRC’s statement read. “The government has made it clear that schools will also have to actively promote ‘British values’ and will be judged by the schools’ watchdog Ofsted [Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills] on how well they teach them.”
On Thursday, May 28, the Buxton School released a new statement announcing they have launched their own “internal investigation” of the survey and that the school “will not be taking part in this method of evaluation now or in the near future.” The letter, written by the Executive Head Teacher Kath Wheeler and Chair of Governors Tom Williams, claimed that while the administrators agreed to participate in the BRIT program, they were not made aware of the content of the controversial survey ahead of time. As such, the letter stated, “the questionnaires that were filled in have been destroyed and no data has been collected or sent to anyone else.”