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U.K.:Is Britain's Education System Failing Muslim Pupils?

Britain has just announced reforms to the country's education system, following a report by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists that alleges the system is failing Muslim pupils. Are such complaints legitimate, and do the new reform proposals address the concerns?

London, 22 July 2004 -- "I believe the British educational system is one of the fairest in the world, because it respects all religions, it respects all ethnic minorities, and there is not even one single provocative verse in their books."

This is the opinion of Dr. Ali Noorizade of the Arab-Iranian Centre in London, but other experts disagree.

A recent report by the AMSS claims the British education system is failing the country's 300,000 Muslim pupils. The AMSS is an association based in London that is committed to the development of Islamic thought through research, scholarship, and publication.

Its report alleges Muslim schoolchildren are falling behind their colleagues. The AMSS advocates more Muslim schools, more same-sex schools, and more stress put on spirituality, rather than on grades, so that the system "produces individuals who would not have to compromise their own faith."

John Marks of the Educational Research Trust is one of Britain's best-known experts in this field. He believes the AMSS report misses the point.

"The state system is failing a very large number of people, the majority of whom are white working-class youngsters," Marks says. "That there are a considerable number of Muslims who are not doing well is not surprising, because they're amid a larger number of indigenous Britons who are not doing well, as well. It's a much more complicated story than that report seems to indicate -- as far as I can see, anyway."

Marks says statistics point out that some Muslim pupils do very well, and that there are many factors at play: "The ethnic groups that do best are the Indians from India, and the Pakistanis do reasonably well. The ones who come near the bottom are the West Indians and the Bangladeshis. But then, so many of the Bangladeshis in this country come from parts of Bangladesh that are so extremely impoverished. Many of them speak Sylheti, which is a language that isn't even written down, so they come with considerable disadvantages."

The AMSS report also contains specific grievances about the religious needs of Muslim pupils. But Marks maintains that the existing British system -- a traditional mixture of state-funded secular and religious schools, as well as private institutions -- takes care of those needs through its compulsory curriculum.

"One advantage about having a national curriculum now is that we lay down these nine or 10 subjects -- whatever it is -- which have to be studied. And if they are state-funded, that's what they have to do to forestall this possibility of people wanting to use the schools in a very sort of indoctrinatory way, as they do in these northwest provinces of Pakistan," Marks says.

Dr. Nasim Butt is an AMSS member and a teacher at Brondesbury College for Boys in the United Kingdom. He denies that the AMSS proposals would unwittingly open the door to fundamentalist influences in British schools.
"Parental underinvolvement -- or no involvement at all -- is one of the key issues. But also, schools need to do far more. They must involve parents in key issues." -- Dr. Nasim Butt

"I am the last person to call for that sort of thing. I am a firm believer in Muslims working with the host community and with all faith communities, and indeed with those who have no faith at all. In fact, I firmly believe that together we can construct a better society than the one we could construct on our own," Butt says

The British government has just announced a new five-year plan to improve the quality of education. The plan talks about more financial autonomy for schools, about good schools being able to take more pupils, and about new "city academies" replacing weaker schools.

Butt says the plan does address some of the grievances contained in the AMSS report: "There are a number of things that we welcome, especially the emphasis the government is giving to inclusiveness. They have initiated a program called The London Challenge Project, and that is looking at the underachievement of ethnic minority children."

Yet, self-help is also vital, says Marks. Quoting a recent newspaper article by a prominent Muslim Labour Party peer, Lord Ahmed, he says: "Because most Muslim parents think education is the responsibility of the state, they do not actively work with schools. And they take their children for extensive holidays back to their countries of origin in order to introduce them to a more disciplined lifestyle."

Butt of the AMSS agrees: "Absolutely. I have full agreement with that. Working groups on underachievement of Muslim children that have been set up through the [Department for Education and Skills] and the London Challenge initiative were discussing precisely that. Parental underinvolvement -- or no involvement at all -- is one of the key issues. But also, schools need to do far more. They must involve parents in key issues."

Also key, stresses Marks, is improving the basic skills of Muslim pupils at an early age: "We need a much more serious effort to get them speaking English and reading English, and getting some basic arithmetic by the age of 7 or 8. I think that is the crucial stage. I was just reading a report here this afternoon about the way in which the attainment that you have at the age of 7 is highly correlated with your success in adult life than almost anything else."