By Brendan Carlin
Last updated at 12:35 AM on 17th January 2010
Schools Secretary Ed Balls has been accused of refusing to ban Islamic schools from smacking children for fear of upsetting Muslim ‘sensitivities’.
Mr Balls was last week urged to close a legal loophole which gives teachers in Britain’s estimated 1,600 schools associated with mosques the right to smack children – even though it is banned in other schools.
He refused, prompting claims that he is allowing an alleged ‘culture of physical abuse’ in some of the mosque schools – or madrasahs – go unchecked.
Smacking is banned in all State and private schools. However, it does not apply to madrasahs, where pupils usually study in the evenings or at weekends, because the ban exempts schools where children attend for less than 12.5 hours per week.
Lib Dem schools spokesman David Laws, who is spearheading the campaign to close the smacking loophole, said: ‘The Government needs to legislate to protect children – not leave an opt-out simply because it fears some ethnic or religious backlash.’
He was supported by Labour MP Ann Cryer, who said it would be ‘bonkers’ if the Government did not act. She said: ‘I suspect people are frightened of upsetting the sensitivities of certain members of the Muslim faith.’
A report just over a year ago warned that madrasah students had been slapped, punched and had their ears twisted.
Irfan Chishti, a former Government adviser on Islamic affairs, said that one madrasah student was ‘picked up by one leg and spun around’ while another pupil said a teacher was ‘kicking in my head like a football’.
In a separate report in 2006, leading British Muslim Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui raised fears that physical abuse in madrasahs was ‘widespread’.
MPs have been told some of the alleged abuse of children in the Islamic schools may be the result of ignorance of laws on the treatment of children among Muslim parents and teachers.
Mrs Cryer, whose Keighley constituency in Yorkshire has a large ethnic community, claimed some of the children being illtreated in Islamic schools were those with special needs.
She said she was alerted to the problem by a local schoolteacher-I had a lot of problems in a madrasah in my constituency,’ said Mrs Cryer.
‘They don’t seem to have any understanding of special needs children. If a kid isn’t learning their Koranic verses terribly well, they think it’s because they are being naughty, not because they have an incapacity.
‘It isn’t always a question of just beating. They have a particular punishment called the “chicken position” where a child must squat on the floor until they get very uncomfortable.’
She denied she was biased against Islamic schools and said classes run by ‘strange Christian sects’ should also be covered by the smacking ban.
The corporal punishment exemption also covers Sunday schools, home tutors and other people who are considered to be acting ‘in loco parentis’.
They can still smack children as long as the punishment is ‘reasonable’ – the same rule as applies to parents.
But experts suspect the real problems occur in madrasahs, although they believe it also an issue with some fundamentalist Christian Sunday schools.
Last night, Dr Siddiqui said the mistreatment of children was not restricted to Islamic schools and insisted that mosques had improved. Some had now introduced ‘recognised child protection’ policies, he said.
A spokesman for Mr Balls’ department denied that his refusal to change the law was based on fears of upsetting Muslim opinion.
‘We have no evidence the law is being abused or that children are being abused in these circumstances,’ he said.
He also claimed that if the Government banned madrasahs and Sunday schools from smacking children, it would then have to ban grandparents and other relatives from doing the same.