Should GCSE and A-levels be timetabled around Ramadan?

Christian group angered by decision to move exam dates to accommodate fasting Muslims

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Exam boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have adjusted the GCSE and A-level examinations' schedule for this summer to take account of Muslim pupils fasting for Ramadan, it has emerged.

Concern that hungry and thirsty pupils might be disadvantaged has led the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) to ask for changes to the timetable, although the overall exam period has not been moved.

JCQ said in a statement yesterday that it had "previously met with Muslim groups to discuss the timetabling", says the Daily Telegraph. It added that it "meets the needs of various groups as much as possible".

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Many exams will still fall within Ramadan, which this year runs 6 June to 5 July.

JCQ pointed out that it is working within a "small window" in which exams must be taken, but the most popular subjects have been scheduled earlier, before the start of the Muslim holy month.

As many Muslims fast between dawn and dusk during Ramadan, popular exams during that time have been arranged for earlier in the day in the hope pupils will be less hungry or thirsty. The same arrangements will be made for at least the next three years.

Because Ramadan's date shifts in relation to the modern calendar - moving backwards by 11 days each year - there isn't always a clash with exams.

This year, however, the two overlap and will again for the next few summers.

The plan has been in place for at least a year, but the fact that Muslim students are being accommodated in this way only emerged yesterday, during a Commons select committee hearing on education.

"Several core maths exams appear to have been shifted to earlier dates than last year, meaning candidates will have fewer days to revise," said the Daily Mail. The paper did not point out that candidates for other subjects will therefore have more days available for study.

The news came under criticism from pressure group Christian Concern, with the group's Colin Hart telling the Telegraph: "[Exam boards] should let things be. It is wrong to impose a Ramadan timetable on pupils who are not Muslims."

He added: "We don't live in Saudi Arabia where they need to fit the exams around sharia principles."

However, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, a founder of the Muslim Council of Britain, welcomed the change as "fair and just" and insisted it was "not a special privilege" as it is within JCQ policy to fit around the needs of special groups where possible, reports The Guardian.

He added: "Religious communities need to be able to celebrate their festivities without being burdened by examinations on these special days."

The Mail quoted Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society cautiously welcoming the changes. "If there are a significant number of Muslim students that are affected and calling for a change, they should be accommodated, but only if this can be achieved with no or minimal disruption," he said.

According to the Guardian, the Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, fully supported the JCQ, telling MPs at the committee hearing yesterday: "It's really important this takes place and important we understand the individual children in this.

"Clearly, there needs to be rigour around the examinations themselves, but I welcome the discussion."

Teachers' groups were also positive. The Association of School and College Leaders said it was "very keen to work with communities to ensure young people are able to observe Ramadan without any detrimental impact on their examinations".

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