Riazat Butt

Is the entire school system failing large numbers of students?

The Koran was revealed over a period of more than 20 years, with the Prophet Muhammad receiving the first revelation in AD 610 in the Cave of Hira, near Mecca. He was told: “Read in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clot. Read, for your Lord is most Generous, Who teaches by means of the pen, teaches man what he does not know.”

Muslim scholars therefore see the pursuit of knowledge as a duty, with the Koran containing several references to the rewards of learning.

This sacredness is, however, lost on a third of British Muslims — or if they see it, they are not being empowered to achieve it. According to official statistics, around 33 per cent of British Muslims of working age have no qualifications — the highest proportion of any religious group in this country — and Muslims are also the least likely to have degrees or equivalent qualifications. Why is the education system apparently failing so many people, and what can be done?

Attempting to reverse the statistic is a group of theologians and educationists who meet this weekend in Leicester to discuss the underachievement of Muslim pupils. The Learning Education Forum of the International Board of Educational Research and Resources (IBERR) draws teaching professionals from all over the world to share ideas that will raise attainment in school and beyond. Speakers will come from the U.S., Nigeria and South Africa.

Muhammad Akram Khan-Cheema, who has more than 30 years’ experience as a teacher and school inspector in the U.K., is one of them. He and many others are trying to remove the barriers to better achievement, whether in private faith schools, state education or supplementary classes. He believes the low achievement needs to be researched on educational and social levels. “There are up to 27 factors at work — from housing to health — that will affect a child’s performance at school. It’s not because our children are deficient. Our faith schools do very well. Their results are excellent.”

Most of the estimated 500,000 Muslim school-aged pupils in England and Wales are educated in the state system. Only a fraction receives a private Islamic education. Of the 127 Muslim schools in England and Wales only a handful are state aided; the rest are fee paying. There are also at least 700 supplementary schools, or madrasas, attached to mosques. These have no regulation. Classes are held after school or at weekends and teach children about the Qur’an and how to speak Arabic.

Pupils of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin — ethnic groups that are traditionally disadvantaged in the fields of education and employment compared with other immigrant communities in the U.K. — are likely to feel they have the odds stacked against them , says Khan-Cheema. But, he says, history should not be used as an excuse; rather it should serve as a warning. And his harshest words are for parents, who could exert more influence on their children’s attitudes.

Happy with mediocrity

“Muslim parents need to wake up to reality. They seem to be complacent. They seem to be happy with mediocrity. Their children have all the facilities, with highly qualified teachers, and the parents seem to be asleep. I’m not asking them to establish their own schools, but why aren’t their children achieving?”

Through his work at IBERR, he visits Muslim-majority countries to see what methods are used in the classroom. This year he has visited Nigeria and the Kashmir region of Pakistan. In both places, he witnessed poverty, but a lack of resources did not preclude children from academic success. “We are so lucky to be living in a place like Britain. This society is ours, too, but what are we contributing?”

A 15-page booklet from a Muslim charity, the Nida Trust, may hold some of the answers to a problem that has frustrated and occupied IBERR members since the first world conference on Islamic education, held more than 30 years ago in Mecca.

The booklet was the result of feedback from participants at Nida’s annual national education conference, held last July, and highlights challenges, priorities and recommendations for all education providers.

School failings

State schools are said by the report to have an “irrelevant curriculum”, few opportunities for parental support, and low expectations of pupils. All schools need to develop a curriculum that is more diverse and inclusive, it says, showing a greater accommodation of different religions and cultures.

Faith schools come under fire for not offering greater provision of social education and personal development. At the back of the booklet are lists of suggested targets and strategies for curriculum providers, teachers, governors and parents. Supplementary schools, says the report, suffer from insufficient funding and an absence of clear monitoring.

Babar Mirza, director of education at the Nida Trust, teaches at a north London mixed comprehensive where a significant number of pupils are Muslim. “The people who took part in our annual conference last year told us what was happening in their classrooms, schools and education authorities,” says Mirza. “This report is based on what they told us. It doesn’t represent our views, it gives an insight into what educationists, pupils and parents are dealing with.”

Another Nida meeting, held in January, gathered together head teachers at Muslim schools and asked them to identify the most pressing problems they were facing. The priorities included professional development for management, links with mainstream schools, and the recruitment and retention of high-quality staff.

Information from both reports will be used at this year’s national conference, in London, again organised by the Nida Trust.

Previous reports — from the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Human Rights Commission have accused state schools of Islamophobia and ignorance regarding the specific dietary, washing, clothing and prayer needs of Muslim pupils.

A failure to provide these services can have an adverse effect, says Mr. Mirza.

“If a child feels as if they don’t belong, then it will affect their performance. It doesn’t have to be Muslim kids, it could be your average Joe Bloggs. They switch off.”

Since the London bombings in July 2005, the education department has made greater efforts to tackle Islamophobia and racism in schools, and has also stressed the important role that schools have to play in breaking down barriers that may exist between pupils from different communities. The department has also, through its Faith in the System initiative, endorsed the positive contribution that faith schools make to wider society and supported institutions that wish to become state-aided. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008