|Muslims and education
Wed 10 Dec 2003
Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills since October 2002, answers questions on the educational status of young British Muslims.
The latest census data shows that the second largest faith community in Britain is Islam and a large proportion of the Muslim community is of school age. How has this data affected educational policy and more importantly what practical steps will be taken in schools to reflect this?
Although the Department doesn't presently request or collate data on the religion or faith of pupils in maintained schools in England, we are aware from national census data that the majority of pupils from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background are Muslim. Many schools collect data on religious faith as part of a wider commitment to recognise and value the heritage and background of every child. We encourage schools to monitor this data and, where it reveals patterns, for example of under-achievement or disproportionate exclusion, take practical steps to address the issues raised.
Even where this data is not collected, it's important for schools to ensure that the religious make up is reflected in the life of the school. Schools can also develop pupils' understanding of equality issues by ensuring that pupils understand and respect diversity in the school and the wider community.
The programme of study for Citizenship education - now a statutory part of the curriculum for secondary schools - includes developing pupils' knowledge and understanding about the diversity of religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom and the need for mutual respect and understanding, as well as the legal and human rights and responsibilities underpinning society. This provides the framework for young people to develop important skills of responsible action, enquiry and communication as they explore a wide range of equality issues.
Why do you think that Muslims, especially those from Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, are consistently under achieving?
The underlying causes of under-achievement are complex. But it is important for us to look seriously at the impact of policies, practice and procedures within schools so that we can support them to more effectively meet the needs of all pupils.
I recognise that there is concern amongst some communities, especially Pakistani and Bangladeshi, that children are underachieving. But I'm not sure it's right to say that Muslim, Pakistani or Bangladeshi children are consistently underachieving. There are Muslim pupils performing at the highest levels in our schools and the performance of both Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils has been rising steadily since 1998.
Having said that, I recognise that the gap between where we are and where we want to be is large and inequalities continue to persist in the system. My Department needs to do more to address issues of underachievement - the Aiming High strategy, launched last month, sets out an ambitious programme of work that will, over time, close the achievement gap between Muslim pupils and the highest performing pupils. You can access the Aiming High strategy and the consultation document by clicking on to http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/ethnicminorities
Even today there are many children who are starting school proficient in their mother tongue but without the ability to speak English. Do you think this has any long term effects on the ability of a child to learn and achieve and do you think parents should speak to their children in English as per the advice of the Home Secretary?
The ability to speak English is crucial to enabling children to get the most out of school. Children who start school without fluency in English tend to progress more slowly in the initial stages of their education. However their progress improves as their language skills develop and, by the time they reach secondary school, they are doing better than their peers.
Young children have an amazing capacity to pick up languages and I think it is important that children are exposed to all the languages that are spoken in the home. The earlier children are exposed to English, the more rapidly they will acquire the language and reduce the chances that lack of English fluency will inhibit their development.
I believe parents have a vital role in supporting their children's learning and development and this could include appropriate support for English language acquisition prior to entering school. However, not all parents or families will be equipped to teach English effectively to their children. This is one of the reasons why we encourage schools to have positive relationships with parents and the wider community served by the school. Where these community links are most vibrant, schools can work with parents and the community to determine how best parents can support their children, including issues such as learning English. Schools can also demonstrate to parents that while English language fluency is a key priority, home languages and the culture and heritage of all pupils are also recognised and valued in the school.
What are your thoughts on single faith schools and do you think they aid or hinder the development of students?
Faith schools are often popular with parents and play a valuable role in local communities. They tend to have a distinct ethos and mission, characteristics we believe to be at the heart of school improvement.
For many years we have acknowledged parents' wishes to educate their children in mainstream Christian schools and it is only right, given our multi-cultural society, that parents of other faiths have similar opportunities for educating their children in accordance with their own beliefs.
Faith schools can also make an important contribution to community cohesion by promoting inclusion and developing partnerships with schools of other faiths, and with non-faith schools. I want to see faith schools working with other local schools to bring children of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds together, and to promote understanding between different sections of our society so that our children can take their place in a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society.
I really believe it is important to promote ethnic, religious and cultural tolerance and respect with different groups of people living and working together. That is why, from June 2003, promoters of new schools Â– whether these are faith schools or not - will be required to show how the proposals will help to promote community cohesion.
How does your department engage with the Muslim community in order to understand the needs and requirements of Muslim students in schools?
My Department is consistently looking at ways to improve how it engages with all people affected by our policies. In developing the Aiming High strategy, my officials consulted with a range of individuals and agencies. These included Pakistani pupils in Birmingham and a number of voluntary and community organisations representing Muslim communities.
Responses to the consultation identified a need for more materials reflecting the experiences of Muslim pupils that can be used by mainstream schools within the National Curriculum. We are currently commissioning research on what material does exist so that we can develop materials to fill gaps that the research identifies.
DfES doesn't seem to have offered schools with sizable Muslim populations any guidance on how they should prepare for Ramadan or how the needs of their students will change. Is this wise?
You are right that we have not offered guidance to schools on this. I think that Local Education Authorities Â– which know their communities - should be supporting their schools to be sensitive to the needs of their communities. By way of example, the London Borough of Hounslow's education department has produced some guidance, which could be we promote as best practice.
Events around the world since 9/11 have led to Islam being viewed in a very bad light. This has invariably been felt amongst Muslim children in school. What steps have been taken to support these children and to actively dispel the connection between Islam and terrorism?
I am aware that many young people Â– particularly young Muslims in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the war on Iraq Â– perceived racism and Islamophobia as problems. Shortly after September 11th, we placed on our website guidance to help schools respond to the concerns of pupils and parents, and to provide advice on school security.
There is no place for racism or prejudice in our schools and I want schools Â– and other education institutions - to tackle this head on. Teachers know their pupils and are skilled at handling controversial and sensitive topics. Ultimately the professional judgement of heads and teachers will ensure that schools respond appropriately in the local context.
Britain is now made up of a tapestry of cultures and religions which are reflected in the school environment. Do you feel schools and teachers in particular are able to appreciate such diversity?
There are some really excellent examples of schools that have developed the way in which they do things to be more inclusive and embrace their school populations. Of course there are also schools that could learn from what these schools are doing.
Identifying and sharing good practice is a crucial role for my Department. The work that we announced last month to support African Caribbean pupils and pupils with a mother tongue other than English is based on extensive research into what works and what makes a difference. My officials are also working closely with Ofsted colleagues to produce a best practice guide on use of the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant. This will be published in January 2004.
We are also working with the Teacher Training Agency and the National College of School Leadership (NCSL) to ensure that initial teacher training and the NCSL's leadership programmes centrally address issues of equality and diversity. I see this work as fundamental to ensuring that the school workforce has the skills and confidence to operate effectively in a diverse classroom.
What improvements would you like to see for Muslims in schools over the next 10 years?
My fundamental aim is to ensure that Muslims pupils, along with all other pupils, are getting the most out of school and reaching their potential. In order to achieve this I want to see schools putting in place robust strategies to lead whole school change to narrow achievement gaps and ensure equality of outcomes.
Essential to this approach is ensuring the school workforce becomes more diverse at all levels and much more confident in addressing the needs of minority ethnic pupils. I want to see schools delivering a curriculum that is relevant and engages pupils in an environment that respects the cultures and religions of all pupils. I also want to see effective support available to pupils who are at most risk of underachieving. I think that the Aiming High strategy is putting in place the foundation to achieve these aims.
Charles Clarke was in conversation with Shargil Ahmad
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