Head defends ISIS writing exercise for 10-year-olds after anger from parents

Halley Primary School. Pic: Sundus Saeed

Halley Primary School. Pic: Sundus Saeed

Parents have strongly criticised a Tower Hamlets school after teachers asked ten-year-old pupils to write a report on ISIS and the Iraq war for homework.

Halley Primary School in Stepney has been inundated with calls and emails amid concerns the task was used to identify pupils at risk of radicalisation, as part of Prevent, the Government’s anti-terrorism programme.

However, in an exclusive interview with Eastlondonlines, head teacher Wendy Otterburn-Hall has defended teachers and rejected the suggestion the task was designed to identify radicalised pupils. Ninety-five per cent of the school are Muslims.

Otterburn-Hall said: “The task was set for a small group of children in Primary 6 as a newswriting exercise, based on their academic abilities, not their mind-set.”

“We have a statutory duty under the Prevent legislation but this is not a Prevent issue.”

Hall said teachers had selected a third of the Primary 6 class, deemed able to cope with more of a challenge, to write a report based on an article on the BBC Children’s Newsround website entitled, ‘What’s happening in Iraq?’

The children were directed to the BBC Newsround website where they had to answer questions posed on it which included, ’What is Islamic State’, ‘Why is Mosul so important?’ and ‘Why did the fighting not stop after the Iraq war?’

Hall said teachers set the subject based on observation of the class who teachers saw as having a specific interest in the events in Mosul.

She said: “They were keen to talk about Mosul, based on what they’d seen. We’re trying to give them a sense of geography, of recent Islamic history, to have some understanding of this all because it was what they were interested in.”

Parents complained the questions were inappropriate and too difficult for their 10-year-olds to comprehend.

One unnamed parent told a British Muslim news website, 5pillars: “What could possibly be achieved by asking a 10-year-old these complex, sensitive and highly political questions?”

“Is it a form of entrapment to try and corner him into criminalising himself? Is it an attempt to force the social services to get involved and have the children taken away?”

“This is a major betrayal of the child’s safeguarding and trust. Did they think about the effects the child’s research into this subject may have had on his young mind?”

A screen-grab of a Facebook post showing the question paper.

A Facebook post showing the question paper.

Sabiha Kadir, 23, a nursery nurse, who has a sibling who attends the school said 10-year-old children would be confused if they conducted research on ISIS: “Children at the age of 10 are not fully aware of the situation in relation to ISIS and what is going on in Iraq. The majority of students in Halley are Asian Bangladeshi Muslim and they have been taught about Islam – how it is the religion of peace.”

“Having to participate in a homework activity which requires them to go out and research on this controversial subject will only confuse children’s thoughts and ideas about their religion.”

“When you type into Google ‘ISIS’ or anything related to this topic, all negative headlines pop up, i.e. Muslim extremist, using Quranic quotations which are taken out of context to support their ideology.”

“Children are curious at this age, and would do further research even if it isn’t related to their homework. These articles also have comments by the public, the majority of which say Muslims are terrorists. Children reading this would believe that it is a terrorist’s religion.”

The homework was part of a weekly current affairs exercise. In previous weeks, children explored subjects such as the Paralympics and airport expansion.

Although a review of the strategy in 2010 emphasised Prevent should not be used as a means of systematically spying on particular communities, its implementation still remains controversial, with many criticising that it discriminates against Muslims.

Farzana Shobha, 22, a teaching assistant, whose friend’s children attend the school said: “With the so called ‘Prevent scheme’, it’s almost as if they are probing the children to fall into a trap and give answers that are likely to be investigated.”

“Why can’t the senior teachers hold an assembly to inform students in the correct way? The way the situation has been handled has me baffled.”

Parents outside the school wished to remain anonymous but all expressed concern.

One parent said: “I don’t want them to teach my kids what is happening in Iraq. That is not a subject they should teach to kids. We do not want our kids to be invited into politics at this age. It will affect the kids, when they start reading stories like this, regarding killings. I do not think it is useful for them to research or find out about this. They are innocent.”

Another parent said: “We don’t even know about this. They’re too young. It’s too much for them.”

She strongly disagreed with anything related to ISIS being taught and said she would not have allowed her child to write on the topic: “I still wouldn’t allow it. I do not think this is education. Education is Science, English and Maths.”

Tower Hamlets Council said: “All homework set by the school is carefully planned to make sure that it is suitable for age and ability and meets all necessary standards for propriety.”

The school issued a letter to parents last week to encourage them to contact the school directly about any concerns they had about lessons or homework.


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