November 25, 2005

"A Bit Claustrophobic"

Yesterday night, one of my favourite metaphorical fishwraps, the BBC, broadcasted on Radio 4:
Islam underpins schools' lessons
By Linda Pressly
Producer: Inside a Muslim School

BBC Radio 4 visits a privately-run Muslim school in Lancashire to see how Islam affects the curriculum and how such a school equips its students for their role in modern Britain.

Every morning at 8.45am, the sound of prayer - first in Arabic then in English - fills the only corridor connecting the classrooms of Al-Islah private school.

Nearly two hundred students, seated neatly at their tightly-packed desks, start their day by praising God.

Prayer punctuates the timetable.

Al-Islah occupies the first floor of a red-brick mosque in Blackburn. It is a girls' school that takes a handful of boys at primary level.

The impetus for setting up the school in 1995 came from parents who were concerned about the state school environment and the effect it might have on their children.

"Things like drugs, smoking, intermingling between the sexes and a low level of achievement made parents think," says the head teacher, Nizamuddin Makda.

"That's why we thought we should set up our own school where we could educate our children morally and academically. The whole ethos is Islamic."

Islamic virtues

What this means in practice is that the girls adhere to a rigorous uniform code, discipline is strict and teachers are expected to instil Islamic virtues, like self-discipline, in their charges.

There are already over 100 Muslim schools in the UK

At GCSE the girls do Arabic and Urdu rather than modern European languages and Islamic studies rather than religious education (RE).

Music is seen as un-Islamic and there are no subjects you might recognise from a state secondary school curriculum like technology, drama or sociology.

Many of the girls arrive from state primary schools.

The adjustment to Al-Islah can be hard.

"I was shocked when I came here", says Year 11 student Waheeda.

"I didn't know anyone and I'd never worn a scarf before. But I got used to it and now I'll be very sad to leave."

Academic springboard

Waheeda wants to be an optometrist or a dentist.

She also wants to do a stint working abroad - maybe in Italy.

And there is every chance Al-Islah will provide her with the academic springboard she needs.

The school's GCSE-level results are good.

In spite of its limited resources - there is no science laboratory - in 2005, 13 out of the 27 achieved the equivalent of at least five GCSEs grade A* to C.

All of the Year 11 students we spoke to envisaged going on to do A-levels at a local college or sixth form and then a degree.

In a school populated by middle-class children, none of this would be surprising.

But the students at Al-Islah are the daughters of labourers, mill-workers and taxi drivers.

They are not the kind of students whose parents have normally been to university and some families struggle to pay the annual school fees of £850.

Claustrophobic atmosphere

During their short lunch break, the Year 10 girls tear around the mosque car park screaming and playing tag.

They make the most of the fresh air because they are let out infrequently. Al-Islah has no real playground of its own and there is not enough space for all the students to go outside together.

Some of the girls are veiled and they are all forbidden from talking to passers-by.

Earlier this year the Chief Inspector of Schools in England, David Bell, criticised Muslim schools for being too narrowly focused and not equipping children to live in modern Britain.

Certainly the curriculum at Al-Islah is not as broad as that found in an average state secondary school and the school can seem a bit claustrophobic.

But over the three days we spent recording at Al-Islah, the impression we got from the students we spoke to was that they are very aware of their potential role in the world around them.

And they do not regard the Islamic values and discipline they are being taught as limiting their horizons. In fact, just the opposite.
So do I get this right? The girls do Arabic and Urdu rather than modern European languages yet would like to do a stint working abroad. The school can seem a bit claustrophobic yet the Islamic values and discipline they are being taught are not regarded as limiting the girl's horizons. No doubt, the 15 girls who were burnt to death in Mecca im March 2003 because the religious police banned their way out of the blazing building without Islamic dress found that experience horizon-broadening. And when the first similar event has happened -- and it WILL -- Al Guardian and the Beeb will stand by humming and hawing and STILL be talking about diversity, tolerance and all cultures being equal.

And now let's all hope that all Christian schools in Arabic countries find similar tolerance and multi-cultural understanding.

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