Ofsted’s ‘whack-a-mole’ approach to private Muslim schools is necessary but short-sighted

“Every single month, and it tends to be more regular even than that, a new story appears of a school in England, for reasons of religion, badly failing its pupils”

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Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw

Last week Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw sent the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan a letter expressing his concern about the ‘urgent and escalating’ problems caused by unregistered faith schools. As with his previous letters on this issue, Sir Michael focused primarily on Muslim schools, in line with Ofsted’s clear policy of prioritising the Government’s ‘Prevent’ and Counter-Extremism strategies in its work.

Unlike his previous letters, however, this latest missive rightly points out that problems are not simply confined to unregistered Muslim schools operating illegally and outside of the system, but to fully registered independent Muslim schools too.

This is not before time.

In January of this year, for instance, an independent Muslim school in Tower Hamlets, east London, was reported for having books in its library that ‘promote inequality of women and punishments, including stoning to death, which are illegal in Britain’ and which ‘undermine the active promotion of the rule of British law and respect for other people’.

In February, a similar school in Luton was found to be ‘undermining British values’ as a result of its ‘unequal treatment of girls and boys’. Not only were girls found to ‘not have the same access to laboratory facilities that the boys have’, but they were also ‘limited to knitting and sewing’ in design and technology classes.

In March, a private Muslim school in Dewsbury was investigated for teaching an ‘extreme form of Islam’ which, according to Sky News, included the distribution of literature which ‘warn[ed] Muslims not to adopt British customs’  and claimed that ‘Jews are engaged in a conspiracy to take over the world’.

In April, a school visited by inspectors was reported to be segregating male and female staff and governors during meetings ‘through the use of a dividing screen across the middle of the room’, something which Sir Michael also wrote to the Education Secretary about so as to highlight the fact that similar policies appear to be in place at a number of other independent schools around the country.

In May, inspectors moved to shut down a school in Staffordshire after being alerted to the fact that children were being put ‘at risk of exposure to extremism and radicalisation’. Similar action was reported in relation to illegal schools in London, Birmingham, Luton, and Wolverhampton.

In June, Ofsted reported that at a school in Birmingham inspectors had discovered ‘a large number of copies of a leaflet containing highly concerning and extremist views, such as “Music, dancing and singing are acts of the devil and prohibited”’. The same school was previously criticised for the segregation of male and female governors.

By now, you get the picture. Every single month, and it tends to be more regular even than that, a new story appears of a school in England, for reasons of religion, badly failing its pupils. And this is by no means a problem exclusive to Muslim schools. A similar exercise could just as easily have been carried out with regard to Christian or Jewish schools, as has been evidenced by the previous blog posts uploaded to this site.

It’s also worth saying that for every school mentioned here, there are clearly a number of Muslim schools that are delivering an education with which, rightly or wrongly, Ofsted have no problem. The point, though, is that in any system which allows schools to be subject to so significant a degree of religious influence, as our system does, offences are going to be committed and they are going to be committed often. It is inevitable.

It is therefore clear that whilst the Government must of course continue to pursue a counter-extremism strategy – and in doing so it naturally justified in focussing its attention predominantly on Muslim schools –engaging in a game of ‘faith’ school whack-a-mole, which deals only with problems as and when they arise, can never be successful. If it really wants to solve the problem of extremism and intolerance in the classroom, it must be proactive and widen its scope, acknowledging once and for all that dismantling the freedoms afforded within the ‘faith’ school sector as a whole is the only way forward.

FSA team

‘Empowering women through education’, they said. The madrasa’s actual teachings were very different

2016 05 13 LW v1 Madrasa“As free mixing was not allowed, the male teacher sat in an adjacent room to the students and used a mic to teach us.”

I went to a part time (3 hours a day, 6 days a week) madrasa that taught a seven year alimah course for girls ages 11+. We were taught Arabic, Urdu, Fiqh, Hadith, and Tafsir. The first five years were taught by female alimahs, and the final years, where we were taught the six authentic hadith collections, were taught by male alims.

This was usually said to be because female scholars were not as qualified to teach the important books. Also, as free mixing was not allowed, the male teacher sat in an adjacent room to the students and used a mic to teach us. There was a hole in the wall that separated our two rooms, which was covered by a curtain, and it would be used to pass books and things to each other, but we never saw each other.

The madrasa followed the Hanafi Deobandi school of thought, and as such its rules were usually quite strict and restricting. The dress code for all pupils was a black scarf and abaya, and a niqab which had to be worn when travelling to and from home. We were taught that the niqab was fardh (compulsory), and often girls who came in without a niqab would be sent home. Music was also prohibited, and we were told that those who listen to music would get molten lead poured into their ears in the hereafter. Talking about such punishments and the afterlife was very common, and we even had a lecture where the speaker turned the lights off and made us lie down and pretend we were in the grave, in order to scare us into being more religious.

Although the website for the madrasa states that it is dedicated to ‘empowering women through education,’ their actual teachings were very different. We were taught that as women, we were to obey our husbands, to the extent that we could not even leave the house without his permission. A woman’s position was said to be in the house, and any contact with non-mahram men was strictly prohibited. We were even told to put on deeper voices if we had to talk to a guy, so he would not be attracted to our soft feminine voices. We were also discouraged from getting jobs that were not in an Islamic setting, and the only job that was encouraged was being an Islamic teacher, which is what almost all of my former classmates have gone on to become.

There was also a lot of homophobia, and homosexuality was seen as a strange and unnatural thing. This issue was actually one of the things I first argued with my teacher about when I started doubting Islam and realised I no longer thought that it was a sin. To his credit though, he was willing to engage and listen, and admitted that if his child was not straight, he would still love them but due to Islam’s rulings, he would be forced to disown them. This teacher was in fact one of the more liberal ones, and was later fired because he was friendly with us and would sometimes bring us food if we were going to have a particularly long lesson, and other staff members thought it was inappropriate for a male to be interacting with female students in this manner.

However, although a lot of the teachers were very strict, some were more open minded. When I first began having doubts about Islam, I confided in one of my classmates and a teacher, and they were both very understanding and we are still friends – even after I eventually told them about my apostasy. Due to this, I actually loved being a student at the madrasa. I highly value the friendships I made with the other students and even some teachers, and the actual learning was both interesting and stimulating. Overall, despite the negatives, I still view my madrasa experience as a highly positive one.

Anonymous

‘As a young girl, it felt like almost everything was banned’

“The school expelled students who were accused of being gay”

jamie al hudaaI attended Jamia Al-Hudaa Residential College for Girls in Nottingham for my high school education from 2000-2006. It is a private school which relies on fees paid for by parents and donations from the registered charity Madni Trust which also caters for a boy’s boarding school in Sheffield. It is a Deobandi school which primarily follows the Sunni Hanifi school of thought. In terms of non-religious subjects we took English, Mathematics, Science (without evolution or sex education), Urdu, Arabic, I.C.T and P.E classes were sporadic. Religious subjects included Islamic law, Quranic interpretation, the sayings of Muhammed, Islamic history classes which treated the stories of prophets as actual historical events and memorisation of the Quran.

In 2014 I returned to the school for a university project in my third year after gaining permission from the head teacher. I found that very little had changed, except that they had installed CCTV cameras in the residential corridors.

While most of the below does not necessarily mean that the school broke laws, it is my belief that Jamia Al-Hudaa infringed upon the welfare, freedom and emotional development of its pupils, compromising our secular education in favour of intensive religious study.

We had no choice of beliefs, either we followed the school’s view of Islam or we were breaking school rules. It is important to really understand this – students were not given a choice about whether they wanted to practice Islam or not, and what type of Islam they followed. If we rebelled against the conservative Islamic school rules we could face detentions, suspension, public humiliations, cleaning, fines and expulsion. We sat on the floor with wooden benches to lean on when writing. Often girls would write on these benches, and as a punishment pupils were sometimes told to clean the benches with sandpaper. I remember my fingers aching from the sandpaper grating against them. As a pupil I rebelled and challenged religion often, and so faced a lot of punishments and disapproval from some teachers. I want to make it clear that not all the teachers were horrible, some were brilliant and tried to give us what they could with the little resources they had.

I was expelled in 2006 after a room check (something they did regularly without notice) as I was caught with a disposable camera: the school did not allow us to take pictures. Tellingly the school has never released a single picture of their female students or staff, as though it is too indecent to do so. Jamia Al-Hudaa for Boys on the other hand has uploaded videos of the male students on Youtube. I was publicly expelled along with a few other girls the next day. I was asked to pack and leave as soon as my parents were able to pick me up. The sense of humiliation and shame stayed with me for years.

As a young girl, it felt like almost everything was banned: listening to music, wearing make-up, chewing gum, being gay, challenging religion, teen magazines, befriending pupils that were older than you, locking your bedroom door for too long, having a mobile phone, talking to boys, plucking your eyebrows, wearing nail polish etc. The school expelled students who were accused of being gay. The management did not hide from parents of the accused pupils or students that they were doing this, even though it is illegal for all schools to discriminate on grounds of sexuality.

The school would also make us pray 5 times a day even if we showed that we didn’t want to. For instance, they would wake us up every morning for prayer, sometimes as early as 4:00 am by knocking on doors, switching on lights and telling students off for ‘being lazy’. They made it compulsory for every prayer to be read in the main hall in my third or second year. Wardens aided by older students would tick off the names of girls who attended prayer. If we missed too many without good excuse they made us sit in the main hall and read the Quran for long periods of time. On top of this we were told that our parents would have to pay a pound for ever prayer missed. We were also forced to fast. If you were healthy and not menstruating, the school would not provide you with food until it were time to break the fast. Some pupils had their own food, like noodles or microwavable pasta, but there was little chance of being able to eat a proper meal without someone seeing you, whether it was a roommate or warden.

The school didn’t provide much in the way of entertainment or methods to engage students. No TV, barely any Internet, a dusty and deprived looking library and a P.E cupboard which consisted of a couple of tennis balls and a rounder’s bat. The school also enforced hijab on the pupils. If we were in any part of the school where a man could see us through a window or where CCTV cameras operated, we had to wear hijab. This led to me being told off for much of the time that I was there because I struggled with the hijab. I didn’t like wearing it and I found the abaya (long dress) constricting. In the years that I was there the school did not take us on a single field trip, not even to a mosque or museum. We lived very simple lives consisting of classes, the two meals provided, home work time and spending time with our friends. Naturally I have some fond memories, for 5 years it was home. This does not in any way excuse the school for its poor education and the lack of basic freedoms afforded to pupils such being able to listen to music in the comfort of your own bedroom.

It is my view that the school has proven that it cannot care for the needs of children which can be seen in the most recent Ofsted report and I believe that the head teacher has broken the law by expelling girls on the grounds of sexuality, and she is not fit to run a school.

Aliyah Saleem is co-founder of Faith to Faithless, an organisation which supports those who have chosen to leave their religion.