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Last updated on 3 December 2019
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Find out how to include pupils from all religious backgrounds, whichever holidays or festivals you're celebrating. Our tips will help you be respectful of other traditions and avoid conflict with parents.

You're allowed to celebrate religious festivals in school 

All schools, whether state-funded or independent, are expected to provide for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of their pupils.

This includes learning about a range of faiths, traditions and cultures – part of which is learning about religious festivals.

As well as teaching pupils about these, you might also choose to celebrate them in school (for example, Christmas, Diwali, Eid). You won't be discriminating against pupils of other faiths by doing so (as explained in the DfE's equality guidance, page 15).

What you celebrate will depend on the type and character of your school

Some schools stick to secular celebrations – for example, having a 'winter' concert or fayre and 'end of year' staff party rather than events being Christmas-themed. Some celebrate festivals from a variety of faiths.

It's up to you – though if you have a designated religious character, you'll need to check with your governors before celebrating any festivals not of that faith.

If you're going to celebrate a range of festivals in your school:

  • Get to know your pupils’ faiths and beliefs and find opportunities to celebrate these during the school year – you can then work these into your curriculum design and assembly plans
  • At an early stage, start thinking about how you could make your celebrations inclusive – for example, how you could draw out secular themes to explore with pupils, such as kindness, sharing and tolerance

Plan well in advance

Involve staff in the planning

  • Explain your approach and rationale, and give them an opportunity to raise any concerns
  • Think about your celebrations from many viewpoints – if you can, plan them with staff from a range of different faiths and beliefs
  • Share expectations – talk about what you do and don't want to see in classes
  • Make sure they bear in mind all pupils who may feel vulnerable at times of celebration – for example, due to family circumstances (such as looked after or disadvantaged pupils) or religious reasons (pupils who have different faiths/beliefs)
  • Encourage staff to plan together to share ideas and avoid activities being duplicated across year groups – see the section below for some ideas for how to make activities inclusive

Think about your pupils' needs

  • Tell pupils about your plans in advance so they have enough time to raise concerns
  • Be sensitive to pupils who may feel isolated – let all pupils know who they can talk to if they're feeling uncomfortable
  • Find opportunities to celebrate difference – whichever festival you're celebrating, allow time for pupils who are celebrating it as part of their own faith to share their traditions and beliefs with the class if they wish, for example in a PSHE lesson or circle time

Keep parents informed

  • Let them know in advance what you're planning and why – for example, include information in your half termly communications – so they understand your approach and have plenty of time to:
    • Ask questions / raise concerns
    • Plan ahead to attend events
  • Encourage them to talk about the celebrations with their children – pupils will feel more comfortable knowing their parents are happy for them to join in
  • Let parents know who they should speak to if they have questions or concerns
  • Start seeking feedback from parents after celebrations, so you can find out what worked and what could be improved

How to make your activities inclusive

This advice focuses on Christmas, but much of it will apply to other religious festivals.

  • Encourage pupils to share any traditions they have at this time of year, even if they're not Christian – look for similarities (for example, kindness, sharing, having family meals together)
  • Consider teaching about a different religion in RE while you're celebrating Christmas in school – see how this might work with your RE curriculum
  • Learn about the secular themes of Christmas – for example, kindness and sharing
  • If you're having a Christmas concert, include some non-religious Christmas songs
  • Differentiate activities so pupils don't have to take part in the religious aspects – for example, if you're making decorations with pupils, encourage them to make them winter rather than Christmas themed if they prefer

You don't have to avoid the religious aspects of a festival but you do need to make sure you're not expecting pupils to take part in religious acts if they don't wish to.

How to manage opposition from parents

Parents have the right to withdraw their child from:

  • RE
  • Collective worship

This right doesn’t extend to other subjects that may teach about religion. If you’re integrating lessons about Christmas (or any other religious festival) into other subjects, parents can’t withdraw their children from these, nor do they have the right to keep them at home to avoid them. The DfE confirmed this for us.

For more on which subjects pupils can be withdrawn from, see our article.

How to manage concerns

If a parent tells you they’re not happy for their child to take part, arrange to meet them as soon as possible.

If there's a group of parents who are unhappy, meet them individually rather than as a group so they can each discuss their own personal concerns with you.

During the meeting:

  • Listen to their concerns – understanding the parent's point of view will help you address any issues
  • Share your SMSC and RE curriculum plans, and explain the rationale behind your approach so they can understand what you're trying to achieve
  • Make it clear that your aim is to include all pupils in all activities – explain how you're planning to do this in an inclusive way

Find and agree solutions:

  • Allow the pupil to be withdrawn from RE and arrange a suitable alternative activity, if that's what the parent wishes
  • Adapt your lessons – you don't have to do this but if there are several parents who are unhappy, you may decide to
  • Agree a compromise if necessary – for example, pupils will attend celebrations but they don't have to join in
  • If all else fails and you can't reach an agreement with parents, direct them to your complaints procedures and inform your chair of governors

Sources

Our associate education expert Bill Bolloten helped us write this article. Bill is an independent education consultant specialising in inclusion, equality and diversity, SMSC and the pupil premium. He has more than 20 years' experience of providing training and professional development support to schools.

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