A DECISION to ban children from singing 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' at two Oxfordshire nurseries has caused widespread outrage.

The Oxford Sure Start Centre in Sutton Courtenay and the Family Centre in Abingdon, had claimed they were preventing youngsters from singing the traditional nursery rhyme, asking them instead to chant "Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep", to comply with equal opportunities rules.

But following criticism from councillors and academics, they have done a U-turn and said children are encouraged to use a range of adjectives and adverbs to sing the song including 'black'.

Earlier this week Stuart Chamberlain, of the Sure Start Centre, said: "Basically we have taken the equal opportunities approach to everything we do. This is fairly standard across nurseries. We are following stringent equal opportunities rules. No one should feel they are pointed out because of their race, gender, or anything else."

But after being contacted by The Oxford Times, the charity Parents And Children Together, which runs the two centres, said it would be turning the song into an "action rhyme".

Chief executive Yvette Gayford said: "They sing happy, sad, bouncing, hopping, pink, blue, black and white sheep and they also exchange boy and girl at the end of the rhyme."

Reports of the nurseries' actions provoked an outcry, as the rhyme has nothing to do with race. It dates back to the Middle Ages and relates to a tax imposed on wool.

Keith Mitchell, leader of the county council, said: "This is another example of political correctness gone mad and it cannot be tolerated. This is a madness that is creeping into our society."

Marilyn Butler, a retired professor of English literature at Cambridge University and former rector of Exeter College, Oxford, said: "Nursery rhymes tell a story that people at the time knew about, that's why it's so ridiculous to pick that word out.

"To have the idea that the word black has only got such a narrow meaning is completely absurd.

"The whole fun with nursery rhymes is to figure out what the original story is. It would make far more sense to explain to the children the meaning and the history of the rhyme."