Why shouldn’t exams be scheduled to avoid Ramadan?

If religion had no bearing on school timetables, we would not have Easter and Christmas holidays.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Yesterday, I broke a story about how the timing of Ramadan this year clashed with summer GCSE and A level exams in English schools. In doing so, I opened Pandora’s Box.

There had long been plans to move some exams so they took place before the Muslim period of fasting, prayer and charitable giving which this year begins on 6 June and schedule others in the morning to make them easier for fasting teenagers. But the news only emerged after it was raised by MPs during a parliamentary grilling of the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield.

The rationale behind the move is not difficult to understand.

The timing of Ramadan is based on the Islamic calendar, which differs in length from the Gregorian calendar used in Britain. Therefore, the dates of Ramadan shift slightly every year.

I suspect the thinking of the exam boards went like this. Hungry children do not perform well in exams. Fasting during daylight hours means pupils are hungry, especially in the afternoons. This could affect their exam results. This is probably a bad thing.

When that perhaps slightly over-simplified logic is applied, the idea of avoiding later exams and trying to move as many as possible into May, or mornings, is eminently sensible, right?

Not if you ask some people on Twitter.

I spend a lot of time on the internet. I have encountered its pond life. I am not ignorant of some of its undesirable elements. So you can only imagine my surprise when our story about Ms Longfield’s comments prompted a backlash. You can imagine my astonishment, my mouth-open bewilderment when people on the internet with silly opinions started spouting them with relish.

In no particular order, we were informed that Ramadan, a “destructive idiocy”, has “nothing to do with Britain”; that Muslims have “no right to special treatment” and should “get over it or get out” and that exams were being brought forward “for the inbreds”.

One user suggested the changes were being made to “satisfy the whims” of a minority, as if Ramadan was something the Muslim faith thought up last Sunday, just to annoy Mr I M Angry of Twitter dot com.

At face value, the theme of a lot of the objections seems to be that religion should not have a bearing on what happens in schools.

The hypocrisy in this is that if religion held no bearing whatsoever then school holidays, scheduled as they are around Christmas and Easter might look very different to us.

Few people shout and scream when children are taken out of school to celebrate the birth or resurrection of Jesus, yet an attempt to ensure as many children as possible are comfortable for some of the most important exams of their lives is labelled an “insanity”.

At this stage it’s also important to explain a few things about the decisions taken by exam boards.

First, the changes, such as they are, have already been made. Final timetables already issued by the three main exam boards show that a fair few maths, English and science exams will take place in May this year, and many of those in June have indeed been arranged for morning sessions.

This is in keeping with the comments of the Joint Council for Qualifications, the exam boards’ representative body, whose director general Michael Turner told me yesterday that some “large-entry” subject exams would take place before Ramadan, with time of day for June exams factored in.

By the strength of the bile and the crazed yelling-into-the-void which this and follow-up stories in the national press have prompted, you would think this sort of compromise was unusual.

But Andrew Harland, chief executive of the Exams Officer’s Association, who represents the people in schools who make exams happen, told me changes to fit around religious holidays, regional variations in half term dates and other significant events were not uncommon at all.

In fact, Ramadan will fall during the summer exam period in 2017, 2018 and 2019 too, and exam boards, as they did this year, will take this into account.

Most of the objections to this perfectly reasonable move by exam boards to ensure widespread participation I have seen have been have been racist and Islamaphobic.

This clash was considered, timetables were drawn up based on legitimate concerns, and children will still go into exam halls and sit tests as planned in May and June. That’s it.

A more sensible debate could be had about whether the shift back to linear exams,  where pupils’ academic success rests entirely on summer exams alone rather than modules taken throughout the year, was sensible. But it will now be drowned out by the inane screaming of the small-minded.

Muslim children deserve to have their needs, religious or otherwise, catered for by our school system, just as much as children of any other faith, or of no faith at all. Inclusivity is and should always be a fundamental element of our school system. Without it, education in England is doomed.

Freddie Whittaker is Schools Week’s political reporter. He tweets at @FCDWhittaker and @SchoolsWeek.

Freddie Whittaker is political editor and chief reporter at education newspaper Schools Week. He tweets @FCDWhittaker.