Ruling

00519-16 The Al-Khair School v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      1st September 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00519-16 The Al-Khair School v The Sunday Times

Summary of complaint

1.The Al-Khair School complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Islamic school bans pupil for boy-girl chat”, published on 24 January 2016.

2. The article reported that a pupil had been suspended from Al-Khair secondary school for breaching the school’s behaviour policy, which prohibited interaction “through any medium…between male and female students who are considered non-mahrams [not close relatives]”. It said that the school considered “free-mixing” to be a “high level” offence, listed alongside “drug dealing, stealing, extortion, racism and arson” on the school’s behaviour policy. The article reported that the Department of Education had launched an investigation into the incident amid concerns that the school had breached the Equality Act and standards for fee-paying schools.

3. The article quoted a representative of the school stating that “the school’s policy is clearly published and parents send their children [to the school] in the full knowledge of the code, which only prohibits communication not conducive to the educational environment we promote…The policy was discussed with Ofsted inspectors, who had no issue with it”.

4. The complainant said that the school had not suspended a pupil for “boy-girl chat”, and it would never discipline a pupil for “merely talking to a member of the opposite sex”. It said that its representative had told the reporter before publication that there was more to the case. The school provided the letters it had sent to the child’s parents, and noted that the school had “limited the scope” of the suspension letter relied on by the newspaper in the hope that the child would be able to transfer to another school.

5. It said that its representative had told the newspaper repeatedly before publication that it was not in possession of the full facts of the case, and that the school would need more time to obtain the relevant permissions to discuss the matter more openly. The complainant provided its representative’s email correspondence with the reporter, and asked the newspaper to provide a transcript of their telephone conversation in which he said he had made the details clear. 

6. The complainant considered that the newspaper had taken a “deliberately misleading standpoint” to “attack” a Muslim school, despite Ofsted having praised it. He noted that as a result of the story, Ofsted had visited the school again and had concluded that the action taken against the pupil had been “proportionate and appropriate”.

7. The newspaper said that the story had accurately reflected the terms of the suspension letter, which had been sent to the child’s parents by the school. It had also accurately reported details of the school’s behaviour policy, which had banned contact between “non-mahrams”. It provided a copy of that policy, which was removed from the school’s website following the article’s publication. It said that there was a public interest in disclosing that a school, which had been praised by Ofsted, had suspended a child for breaching a “no contact rule”.

8. The newspaper disputed the complainant’s position that it had been made aware of the “full picture” leading up to the child’s suspension. The complainant’s representative had told the reporter that there were “other issues”, and that the full details could not be provided because of confidentiality and concerns to protect the child’s identity. Given the complainant’s position, the newspaper had considered that it had an obligation to make no reference to the existence of other issues for privacy reasons. The reporter had not taken notes during his telephone conversation with complainant’s representative because he had understood that the representative would be putting his main points in writing, which he did.

9. Nevertheless, in light of the complaint, the newspaper offered to publish a letter from the school in which it could outline its policy on contact between male and female pupils. It also offered to publish the following clarification in the Corrections & Clarifications column on the Letters page, with the same wording to be published in the relevant section online and appended to the online article:

We reported (Islamic school bans pupils for boy-girl chat, News) on January 24 that Al-Khair secondary school, Croydon, had informed the parents of a teenage pupil that it was suspending the child for breaching its ban on contacts between unrelated boys and girls. The school told us after publication that the suspension was only to remove the pupil pending permanent exclusion, that it had never suspended a pupil for harmless communication with the opposite sex and that its behaviour policy has now been amended. Sir Michael Wilsher of Ofsted wrote to the school that he had been “uncomfortable” about its policy on contacts but was now satisfied that it complied with Independent School Standards on free mixing between pupils of both sexes.

10. The complainant said that the proposed clarification was insufficient because the newspaper had not acknowledged that it had been aware of the full details of the case before publication.

Relevant Code provisions

11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

(i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

(ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

(iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

Findings of the Committee

12. The school had sent a letter to the child’s parents, which made clear that the child had been suspended for “a serious breach of the school’s behaviour policy by making contact with a non-mahram student”. The newspaper had been entitled to rely on the letter as an accurate record of the reasons for the child’s suspension. The letter was also supported by the school’s behaviour policy, which had listed “free mixing…between non-mahram pupils” as “high level” misbehaviour, which could lead to “internal or fixed period exclusion”.

13. The Committee expressed concern that the journalist had taken no notes during his telephone conversation with the school’s representative. However, it was accepted that the representative had made clear to the reporter before publication that there were other issues that had led to the child’s suspension, although he had also made clear that those reasons were confidential.  The fact that the newspaper had been aware of this position did not mean that it could no longer report the details of the suspension letter. It had taken care to include the complainant’s representative’s statement that the school’s recent Ofsted report had said that the school was “‘outstanding’ for personal development, behaviour and welfare for pupils”, and that the inspectors had “no issue” with the school’s behaviour policy.

14. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i), and the Committee had not identified any significant inaccuracies or misleading statements that would require correction under Clause 1 (ii). Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification and a letter from the complainant in response to the complaint.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

NA.

Date complaint received: 2 February 2016
Date complaint concluded: 12 August 2016