‘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.

My life in a Charedi school: ‘Physical punishment was commonplace and the atmosphere was one of perpetual fear’

“this was a school (and there are many like it), which crippled its students by denying them the education which they had a right to receive”

Glasses-and-Torah-Jewish-schools1-1068x801The primary school I attended didn’t have any regular classrooms or playgrounds. None of the teachers had any form of training, and most of them were unable to speak English properly. Physical punishment was commonplace and the atmosphere was one of perpetual fear. Religious studies were the core focus, and any form of dissent, even something as slight as not concentrating during daily prayers, was harshly penalized. You may by now be assuming that I was educated many decades ago, or under some fundamentalist regime. But this was in London in the 21st century, and my school was far from unique.

This was a Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish boys school; one of many similar institutions in the area. I was sent there in good faith (pun not intended) by my religious, but by no means extremist parents, who wanted their son to gain a Jewish education alongside a secular one, and to do so within an acceptable distance from home. What they were unaware of was that behind closed doors this institution was run in manner more akin to Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall than a modern school under Tony Blair’s government.

I emerged relatively unscathed from this experience (I was naturally compliant), but I know of several others who were not as fortunate. Contemporaries of mine suffered extreme physical abuse at the hands of some of the teaching staff, with one boy getting his finger broken for speaking out of turn, and consequently requiring medical care. Others suffered severe beatings, and some even had soap or chalk put in their mouths for uttering so-called profanities.

Yet, horrendous as these incidents were, the school’s real crime was providing its pupils with an abysmally poor education. I was lucky enough to supplement my inadequate lessons by devouring our home library and by learning from my parents, both of whom had received a regular education. Had I not been able to do this, my literacy and numeracy skills would be of a debilitating standard. The school’s mission was to prepare its pupils for a life of religious study – all other considerations were ignored. Conversation and teaching took place exclusively in Yiddish. Having an understanding of the English language may, God-forbid, lure our young minds to secular literature. We never felt the need for any secular education. The “supposedly” great minds of secular scientists believed we came from monkeys, so we were told, and it took them thousands of years to discover that objects fall to the ground; giving it the fancy name of “Gravity”. This, of course, was used as evidence of the stupidity of secular education. We all knew that babies came from human mothers, and any Charedi child could tell you that objects fell to the ground.

You may be wondering why Ofsted did nothing to prevent this. Well for a start, the inspections were scheduled well in advance, giving the school enough time to clean up its act, hire a fake teacher and instruct the pupils on how to respond if questioned. Students were warned to be wary of giving the school a bad name, as this would in turn desecrate God’s name. Not to mention the physical beating that would follow the day after the inspectors left. Additionally, the inspectors were often practising ultra-Orthodox Jews themselves, and thus believed that ancient scriptures provided a more solid form of education to prepare the pupils for the afterlife.

Ultimately, even if the school had been given a damning report, Ofsted has little will to enact any changes. Any form of improvement simply meant compiling an additional policy and procedure file, locked away to collect dusk and mould with all the other non-Jewish material.

I don’t wish to paint a wholly condemnatory portrait, as there were some good teachers in the mix, and the standard of religious education was as high as you might expect. But this was a school (and there are many like it), which crippled its students by denying them the education which they had a right to receive and preventing them from flourishing into active members of society.


“Accelerated” “Christian” “Education”

“other schools saw us as targets for abuse as we walked to and from school, conveniently proving the evilness of these other schools, and further isolating us from the outside world”

Accelerated_Christian_Education logoAccelerated Christian Education, normally known as ACE, is a Christian Fundamentalist system of learning and curriculum established in 1970 by Dr Donald R Howard in Tennessee. ACE describes its curriculum as “back-to-basics education … individualized to meet a student’s specific learning needs and capabilities … incorporating Scripture, Godly character building, and wisdom principles.” ACE offers the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) to successful students, although some schools in the UK also offer GCSE and A-Level qualifications.

There are currently around thirty ACE schools in the Britain, and an unknown number of parents use it as a home-schooling curriculum. Worldwide, there are more six thousand ACE schools in more than 140 countries. Until the mid-nineties, I attended a school in the Home Counties which has since closed.

So, what is Accelerated Christian Education? As a question it’s both very easy to answer and very difficult: easy because facts and figures can describe it to anyone, but difficult because it’s difficult to convey the impact of the education, particularly to people for who the concepts are so alien.

Religion pervades the ACE environment. Our school was typical: run as a private school by the church, allowing them to be exclusive by only accepting the children of church members.

The day started with morning devotions or assembly, which included recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag, a short homily or a longer-form lecture/sermon based on a Bible passage, prayer, collective recitation of a passage of Scripture, and the singing of hymns and worship songs.

Prayer was then further incorporated into the day in the form of grace at lunch, at the end of the day, and by the promotion of prayer before studying or taking a test.

We were required to memorise and recite a passage of Scripture each month, (for example, 1 Corinthians 13, or Psalm 121, which was a requirement for accession to Honour Roll (an elite group of students who got extra privileges) with failure to be able to recite the passage resulting in the student being required to stay behind after school for “Remedial Scripture” during which they are required to memorise the new month’s passage, typically through verbal or written repetition.

Needless to say, religious doctrines and beliefs were also incorporated into the school rules and discipline system, which were codified into a handbook, of which every student had a copy. For example, beliefs around modesty were key to the girl’s dress code (including the requirement that they wear uniform underwear, which would be inspected), and ideas of Christian sexual morality were enforced through the gross misconduct rules.

This strict disciplinary approach was central to the way in which we were taught, too. The emphasis was very much on self-teaching and rote learning, delivered through workbooks known as Packets of Accelerated Christian Learning (PACEs), and classrooms consisted of individual cubicles known as ‘offices’, designed to prevent pupils from interacting with one another and to promote silence and intense, completely unsustainable concentration at all times. Even when calling over members of staff (to get permission to complete a test, or mark work, or in the event that a student needed academic assistance), we had to place a small flag on a shelf on top of their office.

It’s important to know, too, that our school of around sixty students was exclusively made up of children of members of the church, who were overwhelmingly white, exclusively cisgender and heterosexual, and male-dominated. Within that context, the content of PACEs was fairly predictable.

The educational comic strips feature a number of black and minority ethnic (BAME) characters, each group of whom occupy separate schools and churches. As a result, BAME characters rarely interact with white characters, and the majority of the strips focus on the white church and school. In addition, even when teaching about different cultures in social studies, the cultures are portrayed as unsophisticated, ungodly and even demonic, sometimes to the level of the idea of the noble savage.

PACEs promote women’s subservience to the male head of the household, with rigidly defined gender roles and jobs. Women are expected to undertake housework, cooking and, if they have a career, caring professions, whilst men are expected to be career-focussed, to undertake DIY tasks and to lead the household. There is a strict code of appearance for women which is promoted in PACEs (the men’s code is restricted to hair style and requirement to wear “men’s” clothing); this code is reinforced within the school environment, with girls and women required to wear skirts and/or dresses.

PACEs state that homosexuality is a perversion of God’s plan, and that HIV can be avoided by adhering to a rigid moral code. This was also reflected in school rules, in which identifying as gay can typically result in (at best) punishment and (at worst) expulsion and/or public shaming and prayer.

ACE is an exclusively Christian system, and PACEs describe people of other faiths as worshipping demons or false gods. In addition, atheists are described as rebelling against God and seeking to undermine God’s plan for the world.

PACEs espouse political views which align themselves with right-wing conservative values, and explicitly criticise anything which is seen as left-wing or socialistic, including systems of social welfare.

Disabled characters are all-but invisible in PACEs, and when they are mentioned it tends to be in the context of the results of sin (for example, when one character injures another in a road traffic incident). The training given to Supervisors and Monitors on the subject of learning disabilities is limited at best, and promotes un-evidenced, anti-scientific and counter-productive policies which may cause harm to students.

Lastly, and there’s plenty more I could say, ACE schools are isolationist to their core. First, the church considered themselves to be the only true Christians in the area, which is why members of other churches were excluded from attendance at the school. Second, the school didn’t participate in intermural activities, and, since the students were all children of members of the same church, all socialisation was with the same limited group of young people, whether at school, youth group, Sunday school or church.

The isolation was further enhanced by the uniform, which was markedly different to that worn by pupils at all other schools in the area. This meant that the other schools saw us as targets for abuse as we walked to and from school, conveniently proving the evilness of other schools, and further isolating us from the outside world.