Hollie Panther portrait

Written by Hollie Panther

DEI Lead, Mental Health First Aider, secondary Science & Psychology teacher and Teach First Ambassador.

Experiences of, and learnings from, establishing a space for prayer and celebration of religious diversity in a secondary school.

The last school I worked in had a majority non-religious student population, but a diverse spread of religions among those who did follow a faith; many religions had just one follower within the student body. A parent of one such student had mentioned that they were uncomfortable being open about their faith due to the amount of discrimination they’d received in the past. As D&I Lead, a large part of my strategy to improve religious inclusion in the school was to open a Multi-Faith Space. When I started, there was no designated place to pray; my previous school did have a prayer room, but it was hidden away and only students or staff who asked about it were encouraged to use it. I wanted to create a space that people from all religions could use, so that it would encourage some sense of community, which I thought those who were the solo followers of their faith within the school might’ve been lacking. I also wanted it to be a place of celebration and curiosity, so that any student could learn about diverse faiths if they wanted to. The space was initially opened as a work-in-progress during Ramadan, to give Muslim students a place to pray and be away from food if they needed it. During this time I also designated a toilet block for Wudu, the practice of washing before prayer, and delivered whole school talks educating students about Ramadan and how to support students who were fasting. Feedback from this was unsolicited and overwhelmingly positive — parents of Muslim pupils wrote in to the school to congratulate and give thanks for the ‘exemplary inclusion effort for Ramadan’; my wish is for this approach to Ramadan to become the norm in all schools, so all pupils can celebrate the diversity of religious practices alongside one another.

Working alongside the Multi-Faith Space was the Religion & Spirituality Society, which I established as a student-led club who met at lunchtime to explore and learn about various religions. The leaders of the society planned activities and presentations for the group, and brought in occasional themed snacks too — I’m hoping the society will meet in the Multi-Faith Space going forwards, to ensure they are surrounded by diverse religions, with the opportunity to learn about them being easily accessible.

The Multi-Faith Space is two small rooms off of the Library, where I have put up shelves on each wall and designated each of the six walls to a major world religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism). I reached out to religious leaders in the community to see if they would be happy to donate a copy of their religion’s text or any artefacts that could go on the shelves. This took the form of finding email addresses of local Mosques, Churches, Gurdwaras etc, or filling in contact forms on their website, and Googling ‘free copy Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist etc text’, and making sure in my message I invited them to send my request on to anyone else they thought might be able to help out. As a result of this I had an incredible array of items gifted to the Multi-Faith Space by several local religious groups, and had an insightful and useful meeting with the representative of Judaism from the West Sussex SACRE (every county council have representatives of world religions, who are keen to come into schools to deliver lessons / assemblies etc on their religion, I’m hoping the next D&I Lead and teachers of RE will be able to make use of this otherwise untapped source after my introductions — none of the RE teachers in the school had heard of them). Several sources of items and books posted them to me or dropped them in to the school, but I also visited several organisations to collect their donations, which I really enjoyed, as it took me to places I wouldn’t have ordinarily visited within my local community.

I organised a Grand Opening for the Multi-Faith Space to which I invited all the local contributors, as well as staff and religious students. The student leader of Religion & Spirituality Society was invited to cut the ribbon; it was a great opportunity for me to connect up school staff and the pupils who will be running the Religion & Spirituality Society next year with community religious leaders (over donuts and cookies), so that they are able to lean on them for support with the society and also with RE teaching as the school grows. One community attendee at the Grand Opening came from the Baháʼís, a religion I admittedly hadn’t heard of when they initially made contact, but which I learnt much about through talking to this local follower at the event. They also donated several items and books to the Multi-Faith Space, and though they didn’t have a designated wall and shelves, I set up a table in the space to display their information, and was really glad to be representing a greater diversity of faiths than I had originally planned for.

I had a student volunteering with me for their Duke of Edinburgh’s Bronze award, who helped me plan the space and also worked in the Design Technology (DT) room on a signpost to go outside of the Multi-Faith Space, which featured laser-cut arrows, each one with a different place of worship on it — ‘Hindu Mandir’, ‘Sikh Gurdwara’ etc. Unfortunately, because the student could only work on this under supervision by the DT teacher, due to technology issues and absence, the sign was not finished in time for the Grand Opening — I look forward to seeing photos of it in pride of place when it’s completed in the Autumn term.

My advice to anyone thinking about building such a space would be to absolutely go for it — the only spend was on the shelves and snacks for the Grand Opening, as well a couple of items to represent religions who didn’t get back to me to contribute anything. The rest was furniture that was already in the school, and the items and books gifted by the religious community were invaluable — so it’s doable on a tiny budget, I would just encourage anyone wanting to build one to start early, and get your message with the call for help / donations really clear and send it to as many people as possible, ideally alongside an invite to a Grand Opening — and then chase them up if they haven’t replied; I got the impression that everyone wanted to help, but that sometimes there are multiple people within a place of worship who read the emails, so they may not get picked up the first time around.

On the whole, I really enjoyed building the Multi-Faith Space and I’m really proud of what I achieved with this — the Grand Opening was on my penultimate day working at the school, so it really feels like a legacy I’m leaving behind; a tangible asset to the school community that will continue my work without me.