School apologises for controversial Culture Day policy

A Tower Hamlets school has U-turned after students were told they would be sent home if they did not follow dress code on Culture Day.

A secondary school in Tower Hamlets has apologised after it told parents their children would be sent home if they came to school wearing a type of cultural dress it described as ‘religious items’.

Mulberry Stepney Green in Tower Hamlets is due to hold a Culture Day on June 21, where pupils are encouraged to wear cultural dress or clothes in the colours of the flag they feel best represents them or their identities.

But in a letter to parents last Friday (June 7) the school said the wearing of an abaya or thobe, clothing associated with predominantly Arab cultures and the Islamic faith, was banned on that day, stating ‘religious items such as thobes or abaya are not permitted’. It added that any children wearing them would be sent home, causing widespread offence and anger.

An abaya is a long, robe-like dress that is loose fitting and has been worn by women in Arab cultures for hundreds of years. Thobes are a traditional garment worn by men that are also prevalent in Arab cultures and are a popular cultural dress worn in Palestine and Morocco.

Both abaya and thobes are worn by some Muslims but are synonymous with different cultures around the world. Asma Islam, a Tower Hamlets councillor whose relative attends the school, said she was left appalled after she read the original letter. Cllr Islam told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): ‘If it was a sports day, I could understand, but if you’re asking children to be your true authentic self, you just can’t put a ban on that.

‘I don’t think clothes are religious, I think people are religious but clothes aren’t.’ She went on to say: “I think it’s the right thing to do [to change their minds] and the school did apologise but it really shouldn’t have happened in the first place. What does this mean for our educators? Are we going backwards as a country? Because this has never happened before. This is Tower Hamlets, where there’s a high population of Muslims.’

Paramjit Bhutta, head teacher of Mulberry Stepney Green, said he was sorry the letter had caused offence to some people. A second letter was sent out the following day (June 8) which said: ‘The school has always had a deep respect for Islam, the faith of most students at the school and many staff. We have prayer, we take account of holy festivals and fasting, and our ethos reflects the values and way of living of Islam.’

Mr Bhutta told the LDRS the original plans had input from students belonging to the School Council. He said: ‘The context for our recent letter on Culture Day, which is designed to be a wonderful celebration of our community’s rich multi-culturalism, was that at a recent World Book Day event, students were invited to think about the literature they had enjoyed and come into school dressed as their favourite book character.

‘Despite this brief only a handful of students came as their favourite book characters with the majority coming into school wearing their thobes.’ He added: ‘The feedback has provided us with a valuable reminder about the importance of cultural and religious dress and the different views our community holds, and how we should, in the particular circumstances, have sought to encourage rather than dictate the manner of individual participation. It is a complex world and we always listen to our community and learn accordingly.’

Maium Talukdar, deputy mayor and cabinet member for education, youth and lifelong learning, said: ‘Like many people, I was shocked and saddened when I saw the letter. That’s why I contacted council officers over last weekend so we could address the situation as quickly as possible. I am very pleased the school has now reversed its position. Since the middle of the last millennium, Tower Hamlets has been a byword for religious tolerance and cultural admixture. Long may that thrive with our schools at the forefront.’

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