Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has called for calm after a religious studies teacher reportedly showed pupils a racist caricature of the Prophet Mohammed, sparking protests at the school gates.
The Batley Grammar School teacher, who has been suspended pending an investigation, is reportedly in hiding and the school has “unequivocally” apologised for showing the “totally inappropriate” material to children. Depictions of the prophet are considered blasphemous in the Islamic faith.
It comes as protesters gathered outside the school in West Yorkshire for a second day.
Baroness Warsi, who was the first Muslim woman to serve in the British cabinet, told the Today programme: “I think this is about children. It’s about child safeguarding and making sure the school look again, as should every school, to ensure that every pupil in their school is being taught in a way which creates a positive, unifying learning environment.
“Unfortunately this matter has been hijacked by extremists on both sides to, kind of, create this culture war. What we’re forgetting in all of this is the most important party in all of this, which is the kids and their learning.”
The peer said she had spoken to pupils and parents over the past 24 hours, and “it’s obvious that may pupils were left distressed because of what happened.”
In a Twitter thread she elaborated: “An RE teacher taught blasphemy by using the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed wearing a ‘bomb’ turban.
“This, according to parents at the school, created a hostile atmosphere and led to Islamophobic discourse and language.
“Islamic bullying in the playground is well-documented and taunts such as ‘terrorist’ are regularly used leading to issues around mental health and poor educational outcomes.”
Baroness Warsi, the former chair of the Conservative Party, added: “This is a child safeguarding issue, not a cartoon issue. It’s about smart teaching, not point scoring, and whilst tragically Covid continues to kill can I urge the small but noisy group of protesters to calm down and go home.”
Dozens of people stood outside the school gates on Friday, partially blocking the road, with the Department for Education branding the protests “completely unacceptable”, and claiming they included “threats” and “intimidation”.
The department’s response has since been criticised by the Manchester-based Ramadhan Foundation.
Mohammed Shafiq, its chief executive, said the community rejected any violence or threat of violence, and said the incident “will now be hijacked by those who have an interest in perpetuating an image of Muslims”.
Shafiq continued: “It is alarming that the Department for Education chose to amplify those divisions by attacking the parents and pupils rather than looking how we can come together to have a respectful discussion and seek an end to this issue.
“There is still time for calmer heads amongst the department and we urge them to seek language that brings us together and address the issue without deflecting.
“The education sector has a duty to protect the needs of all pupils and we are heartened that the school leaders recognise the pain and suffering caused by this incident.”
Shafiq added that he condemned the cartoon “in the strongest terms” and was saddened that the teacher had not considered the hurt it could cause.
A DfE spokesperson said: “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 are 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.
“They must balance this with the need to promote respect and tolerance between people of different faiths and beliefs, including in deciding which materials to use in the classroom.”
West Yorkshire Police previously said they were called to the protest at around 7.30am on Thursday.
A police spokesperson said the school road was closed for a short time, no arrests were made and no fines were issued.
In a statement, Batley Grammar School headteacher Gary Kibble said: “The school unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate resource in a recent religious studies lesson.
“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.
“It is important for children to learn about faiths and beliefs, but this must be done in a sensitive way.
“The member of staff has been suspended pending an independent formal investigation.”
But communities secretary Robert Jenrick said the protests were “not right”, and added that suggestions the teacher was in hiding were “very disturbing”.
Speaking to Sky News, he said: “What I can say is there has to be an appropriate balance – we have to ensure there is free speech, that teachers can teach uninhabited, but that has to be done in a respectful and tolerant way and that’s a balance to be struck by teaching professionals and the schools concerned.
“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. That is not a road we want to go down in this country, so I would strongly urge people who are concerned about this issue not to do that.”
Labour MP for Batley and Spen Tracey Brabin condemned those who “seek to fan the flames” in the Prophet Mohammed row at a school in her constituency.
In a statement shared on Twitter, Brabin said: “No teacher should be facing intimidation or threats, there is no excuse for that.
“The focus must be on the welfare and education of the children at this school.
“I welcome the school’s apology and recognition of the offence this has caused but conversations between the school, parents and local community must proceed in a dignified and respectful matter.
“Those who seek to fan the flames of this incident will only provoke hate and division in our community and I would encourage all involved to work together and calm the situation.”