Religious freedom must be considered in the light of children's well-being
Will this year’s GCSE and A-Level examinations be rescheduled to accommodate fasting Muslim students during Ramadan?
As the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, Ramadan shifts slightly each year, meaning Muslims will be fasting from June to July this year. Pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will sit GCSEs and A-levels between May 16 and June 29 this year.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said it had held discussions with Muslim leaders about the timetabling of exams this summer, but a report in the Guardian late on Thursday suggested that there had been some misunderstandings.
The council said the timing of Ramadan had been considered in the same way as other events – such as the Queen’s diamond jubilee in June 2012 – and that the timetable was not open to change. I expect more details will emerge in due course.
What has interested me, however, is the response of some people who believe this is a good way of accommodating fasting students.
The potential rescheduling of exams is not as important to me as the fact that we are not talking about mature adults who can make an informed choice, but children upon whom there is no obligation to fast, as well as encouraging them at a very young age to fast as soon as possible.
That these are young children depriving themselves of food and water seems to go largely unsaid. If non-Muslim children were to deprive themselves of food and drink for nearly 20 hours each day for a month, I suspect the response would be different.
Last year, there was uproar when a headteacher of the Lion Academy Trust – which runs four schools in London – advised parents to tell their children not to fast as it could be harmful. Instead of support, the decision was criticised by certain Muslim groups, saying it was not the school’s place to interfere.
Brushing aside the ironic fact that some of these groups try to interfere in the lives of Muslims, when did it come to this? Instead of praising children and parents for showing so much devotion to their religion, better time and energy would be spent on schools and these ‘faith leaders’ – assuming they influence the people they claim to represent – on telling parents and the wider communities to encourage their children not to fast.
If headteachers are truly concerned over the ‘negative effects’ that a clash between Ramadan and exams could have, then they should follow the example of the aforementioned headteacher.
Coming from a Muslim background, I appreciate that sense of unity one feels during Ramadan, knowing your fellow Muslims are all fasting and feeling hungry and tired, and perhaps you will all share a meal together at sunset.
But this should not come at the expense of a child’s health and well-being. If they really wish to fast then they should make up for it when they do not have exams or when they are off school.
Schools should not be making too many concessions in the name of religion – who knows where this will lead to and what the next issue will be.