By Stefanos Evripidou
THE ENGLISH School is back in the spotlight after the Ombudswoman’s Office sent a letter to the school’s new board asking it to incorporate the Muslim holiday Bayram in the school’s official holidays.
The ombudswoman’s anti-racism authority decided to look into the matter after Turkish Cypriot parents of pupils at the school complained that their children were not able to enjoy Bayram as an official holiday.
The parents argued this was both a violation of the general religious freedoms of Muslims, and an act of discrimination of Turkish Cypriots at the school.
According to the school’s website, the school was founded in 1900 by Canon Frank Darvall Newham as an English-language intercommunal school of Christian character “with facilities for all pupils to practice their own form of religion”.
In 1960, when Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule, a special law was enacted passing control of the English School to the Cyprus Republic. The government, not the education ministry, oversees the operations of the school with cabinet responsible for appointing a board of management.
In 2003, when the checkpoints opened, Turkish Cypriot pupils were readmitted for the first time in 29 years. Today there are around 140 Turkish Cypriot pupils, counting for around 10 per cent of the total school population.
The ombudswoman’s office sent a letter to the board on Monday highlighting the multicultural and intercommunal nature of the school, which demands greater responsibility on the school to maintain religious neutrality and pluralism not just in the education provided but in the way the school functions as a whole.
The ombudswoman referred to the school’s charter, which specifies that it will have a Christian but non-dogmatic character, and called on the school board to consider making Bayram a school holiday.
The school’s new board head Magda Nicholson told the Cyprus Mail yesterday that she investigated the matter after receiving the letter and discovered that only once in its recent history did the school take a one-off decision to make Bayram an official holiday in the 2009-2010 school year.
After 2003, an effort was made to accommodate Muslim pupils by organising the school calendar in a way so that Bayram, which is a moving holiday, fell during the school half-term or during a teacher training day when pupils could stay at home.
When neither of the two options are available, like this year, Muslim pupils can take the day off without recording any absences, while the school instructs teachers not to conduct tests or cover any new material in the classroom.
“I believe such behaviour shows respect for their religious rights,” said Nicholson.
The board head said a reply has been sent to the Ombudswoman highlighting that the school calendar is prepared in May or June of the previous school year, meaning the new board appointed this September had nothing to do with this year’s school calendar.
However, she suggested the board was not planning at present to make it an official school holiday.
“This is not on the table right now,” she said.
“If the official state makes Bayram an official public holiday then we would be the first ones to change the school programme,” added Nicholson.
The chairperson argued that the school does “so many things in its everyday life that enhances and improves the multicultural nature of the school, including its bicommunal nature” that never receives any attention.
“The nature and programme of the school is such that it accommodates everyone not on merit of religion or political party but on merit that they belong to the English School community.”