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Merry Christmas Everyone?

Like many in the country I woke up feeling defeated and depressed on Friday 13th. I really thought we would finally see some change. I wasn’t that confident that we would see a Labour government back in, but in my area Chingford in East London I had been caught up in the passion and hope offered by our Labour candidate Faiza Shaheen.

We have been stuck with Iain Duncan Smith for 27 years. He has no links to the area, renting a flat during the campaign to suggest he was local while driving back to his Buckinghamshire mansion at night. I have lived here for three years and never clapped eyes on him. In contrast Faiza is a true local. She grew up here, went to the local schools, her mother used local services. She is also super smart, super likeable and also, most importantly in this case, not white.

I went to hustings for the first time in my life and was wowed. A room full of people from all cultures and backgrounds, lots of young people. Lots of support for Shaheen. I don’t like to stereotype but you could literally spot the Tory. The white, older men folding their arms in disgust and clapping loudly whenever Smith spoke. I walked out of that room thinking that there was no way she couldn’t win. Regardless of how people feel about her leader SHE is what is needed in this area.

Sadly, no tragically, she lost out by a tiny margin. She certainly closed the gap considerably but it wasn’t enough.

This led the floodgates to open in local Facebook groups. Gloating, thinly veiled racism, talks of snowflakes and scroungers losing out. The irony of people posting about how terrible the area has become and stating that IDS is what we need, despite it is who we have had for so many years.

The fact that all the infamous right wing fascists in this country have now announced their support for the government came as no surprise. Blatant Islamophobia across the Tory party, with a horrific example in this area were all explained away. With the apparent anti-Semitism in the Labour party being highlighted consistently.

This all became personal to me this week. A story ‘broke’ in the Daily Mail, spreading like wildfire across my social media networks being shared by parents at my school. The story claimed that an unnamed parent was deeply upset and offended that she had been told a couple of the Christmas carols due to be sung in the carol service had been tweaked. Lord Jesus had been replaced by baby Jesus.

The school is a community school with many different backgrounds and religions. The children learn about all faiths which is one of the reasons we chose it. Firstly, I do of course, if this parent does have strong Christian beliefs the I understand that this could well be offensive. However, going running to the Daily Mail of all papers feels like the least Christian thing you could do. We also have two faith schools in this area and playing devils advocate I would question why she didn’t choose to send her children to the Church of England school just down the road if the family faith was so important to her.

Whatever the original complaint and how valid it was or wasn’t. What happened next was truly horrific. Rumours, half-truths and outright lies being thrown around by all the outraged parents. Apparently the school were changing the Christmas play (they didn’t it had actually been on the previous week and was full of shepherds and stars) One mum was fuming because apparently her child had been told to say happy winter holidays not Christmas (again blatantly not true the word Christmas has been everywhere on school communications) outrage that the school would be getting rid of Easter next and that all the kids would be forced to celebrate Eid instead.

The reason for all this? We got a new headteacher this year. She is incredible and has such brilliant plans for the school. She is also an openly practising Muslim.

So in the last week before Christmas holidays where all teaching staff are dead on their feet. This woman was faced with collective anger. Both from parents complaining in person and through official routes but also by parents in the playground talking about her loudly. Many parents were also urging others to take their children out of the school on the day of the service.

In particular, I overheard:

‘Why should we all have to change for them when most of them won’t even come themselves?’

This was a parent apparently talking about the 70 children in our school who are from a Muslim background as she had apparently seen many parents that morning telling the head that there is no way they would allow their children to attend (more lies of course children of all backgrounds attended the service).

I attended the carols. It was everything a service should be. Lots of kids singing a variety of carols and more modern Christmas songs, I cried of course.  It was in the local church and the vicar talked at length about how they worked with the school to make the service inclusive. They weren’t offended by the apparent change in lyrics. In fact they released a statement in support of the school and spoke of how they would like to see more of the local families attending the church, whatever faith they follow.

For me, although the service was lovely, it was also ruined. I was stood at the back where groups of parents talked loudly, used their phones and of course the only conversation I heard was the disgust at the apparent eroding of our Christian values. Yes, the irony. The very people outraged by the whole thing were the ones ruining the service. I have no idea if any lyrics were changed and I can guarantee that if this story had not emerged then nobody would have had a clue if they were or not.

Times do change. Songs, playground tunes (I was of the generation that still happily sang the older version of catch a n***** by its toe!) all move with the times as our society becomes more inclusive.

This situation didn’t just stay in the school though. I have watched as a smattering of Christian fundamentalists repeat the story, the outrage. Both Britain First and Jihadi Watch have also taken up ‘the cause’ with BF urging supporters to send letters of complaint to the school.

I feel broken by all this. It is my child’s school and knowing that I am surrounded by some people who think this way has been devastating. Along with the prolonged right wing messaging that has become more open and acceptable as the weeks have past. I have had to unfollow a lot of accounts. But it has also made me more determined. If I want my daughter to have a good education then I need to support the school and all it is trying to do. I need to find my tribe, continue to build relationships with parents who may think more like I do but also continue to challenge views when appropriate.

One light in the week was at school pick up yesterday. There was loud music heard in the playground and lots of us went to seek out the source. It was a wedding party returning to a home nearby. Drumming, dancing and celebration in a front garden for all to see. I believe it was a Turkish wedding but wherever the traditions came from the occasion was joyous. The best part for me though was seeing streams of school children walking down the street singing and dancing along to the music. Kids are not born racist and we need to fight to ensure that they never see any reason to take on such divisive views



This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Hi Jenni, Thanks for your thoughtful piece. Just before the election, I was handing out leaflets about cuts in funding to schools (on behalf of the Teachers Education Union) outside a primary school, just off Friday Hill. The parents seemed to be unaware of the issues being faced by schools due to Government underfunding and were surprised to know how much money has been and would be lost per pupil. The headteacher, who was a Muslim, came out and asked us to stop, saying she had not given her permission for the name of her school to be on the leaflet. We explained that this school wasn’t being singled out and that information was being made explicit to parents attending all primary schools in the area, in the same way. She was pleasant but obviously very anxious by our presence there. My friend and I (both ex teachers, who live in Highams Park) were surprised by her reaction, knowing that headteachers across the country were actually getting involved in the campaign, alongside their teaching colleagues, to raise awareness of the horrendous situation now being faced by schools due to underfunding. We explained to her that we were acting lawfully and would continue to give out the leaflets, which were accepted with very few exceptions. One parent asked my friend if the leaflets were about the assembly and we did wonder what the reason for this was. Now you’ve contextualised events in your blog, I can see why the headteacher was so anxious and why she took our presence there so personally. I can see that the lack of understanding among many, about the relationship between national and local Government, could actually be used by those wanting to denigrate people because of prejudice and I’m very sorry that she’s been put in this position. I taught and was a senior manager in a primary school for thirty six years in Tower Hamlets and am all too aware of the work schools need to do to combat racism and to make schools safe places for children, staff and parents. I wish you and other parents and the Headteacher well in your work in what , I think, will be troubling times ahead. Best wishes for a happier new Year.
    Gail Williams

    1. Thanks Gail – yes that would explain a lot! She had lots of people really attacking her and the school and may have felt uneasy. I am going to be doing a lot more with the school in the new year so if there is anything I can do to bring the issues of the cuts to the school then let me know. I just wish parents would get as worked up about funding cuts as they did about hymns!

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