Saturday, April 26, 2008

Educating Muslim children

Why are Muslim schools oversubscribed? Why is there a demand for them from so many Muslim parents? People who are against Muslim schools have to first of all answer these questions especially within the context of a choice-dominated public sector agenda. The anti-Muslim argument is that Muslim schools are a form of protectionism that harm community cohesion. This led to the rather absurd suggestion after the riots of 2001 that Muslim schools were the cause of the problem (most of the rioters were from local comprehensives). Well, protectionism is as much a part of Muslim schools as it is a part of Christian or Jewish schools. The Muslim case is that Muslim schools are necessary because Muslim children feel confidant within them and they grow up therefore as confident citizens ready to participate in society.

But I have not been convinced by the argument for Muslim schools and remain doubtful as to whether we should invest so much of our energy into building more schools. Muslim schools, the good ones, tend to be normal primary schools or secondaries but with Quran classes, an assembly and an admissions policy. Well, the admissions policy is is effectively de facto in place for many state-run schools anyway, so that leaves assemblies and Quran classes. This leads me on to madressas. Many children, if not the majority of Muslim children, spend most of their time in a state run school and then between one and three hours every evening in a madressa. This has become the norm for education in the Muslim community. But education is one of the areas in which we are weakest. The results show that though a sizeable proportion are doing well, the majority are underperforming. Are these two issues related? This is controversial because many people from the education sector suggest that the madressas are the cause for Muslim underachievement. This is a part of the parents blaming the teachers and the teachers blaming the parents culture. The madressas also need to face some hard truths. How many children return to the mosque after 11? The majority disappear, though they spent in the main two hours every day for five days a week for four years there. And how much of this teaching equipped them for the identity issues that they will face as teenagers within a modern British culture? I think there needs to be a serious re-think here about the madressa system.

But back to the question of Muslim schools themselves. Those who advocate against Muslim schools still have to deal with the fear that Muslim parents have against some non-Muslim teachers. This is not unfounded. I have been shouted at, told to leave my parents (twice) and insulted whilst receiving my education. During the Rushdie affair, I was told that one non-Muslim from an educational establishment was overheard in a conversation saying: ‘Why can’t we just take these kids away from their parents?’ Quite. Anti-Muslim prejudice amongst teachers is well-known. This is why the recent suggestion by the National Union of Teachers to incorporate Muslim instruction into normal schooling hours is such a positive suggestion. If Muslims could get onto the school governing boards and acquire senior positions in school management (such that ownership is shared) then incorporating instruction (i.e. something resembling the madressa) into normal schooling hours sounds like a fantastic idea. The madressa model may need to be changed in order to do this, but it may help Muslim achievement in two ways. Firstly, Muslim identity becomes part of the norm (not separated off) and secondly the children will have more time to be children i.e. to play. Muslim schools at the most cater for a few hundred children but Muslim demographics mean that we need to provide educational solutions for the thousands. This suggestion by the NUT seems to offer a far more practical solution.