The findings in a recent report from the IPPR entitled ‘Inside Madrassas’ (November 2011) are cause for both optimism and dismay. The research surveyed 179 out of 2000 Madrassahs in the United Kingdom and in a system of 250,000 students benefitted from the participation of 100 participants. The IPPR sought to ‘lift the lid’ on this supplemental schooling system in order to respond to concerns in wider society over the perceived trajectory between Madrassahs and extremism. The research did not find such a trajectory and this is pleasing and will of course not be surprising to most Muslim parents who would never wish their children to be exposed to extremist teaching. Additionally, ameliorating concern on this subject voiced in the dominant news media has become, appropriately, a priority for British Muslims. The report finds that Madrassahs also are well supported by parents (90% of funding is from fees) and have good links to their communities citing the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) report ‘Faith in the System’ as further evidence of the importance of Madrassahs in cementing Muslim communities together. The authors also point out quite rightly that the Madrassahs address wider issues of fairness, in so much as they offer supplemental education and childcare at much reduced rates that are more affordable for working Muslim families. The report is evidence that undoubtedly this form of supplemental education produces much scope for enhancing the social, linguistic and religious education of Muslim children, and this is very positive and can be built upon.
However, after ‘lifting the lid’ the research has in many ways slammed it back down again, the authors stating at a recent research presentation in London that in spite of the disturbing resistance to seek annual CRB checks, UK-based teaching qualifications, have child protection policies in place that forbid physical punishment of children and limit the number of hours per week spent in Madrassahs that we should seek more not less of the same in the United Kingdom. The report is peppered with holes in the way it has been conducted, referring to the presence of ‘teachers’ but not specifying what those teachers are trained in, the results which later show that majority of classes are taken by Imams (75.6%) are self-explanatory additionally, the research did not conduct any analysis along lines of gender, class or national background. What this means is that the researchers have controlled the possible questioning of the output, which cannot attend to some of the most persistent arguments in Islam occurring through the lens of religion and civil rights of women and girls. One of the major problems visible in the white space of this report is there are no measurables in the Madrassah system, because pupil attainment over time is not recorded, nor staff/student ratio and curriculums not published the mystery behind the value of Madrassahs remains firmly below the lid. This means that Muslim parents must not just have faith in God but also in the Madrassah school system, and the conflation of the two has produced a two-tier system whereby children in mainstream supplemental education have the benefit and protection of relevantly qualified, police-checked, Ofsted inspected learning environments and Muslim children have not. The closeness of the Madrassahs to the Mosque in epistemic terms means that questioning one is akin to questioning another.
Ultimately, it is always easy to take a completed report and pick holes in it and the IPPR as a research institution will expect this; it is however also incumbent on us all to do so because of the pressing importance of our children’s wellbeing as they grow up here, in the United Kingdom. Madrassahs offer opportunities to enhance our children’s lives and hence enhance the nation more widely, but in their present state they are far from this goal. Key in this argument is that supplemental education is rarely understood as something that children take part in every day, (the IPPR found most children enrolled 6 days a week) certainly there is no comparable example in the United Kingdom. Madrassahs are in this way extremely unusual and this gives rise to serious concerns over child welfare conflicting with guidelines on acceptable numbers of hours spent on formal learning outside school. Given the current lack of legislative obligations for high standards of care and safety in supplemental education Muslim parents must demand higher standards of care, and education themselves and take a more active role in the governance of such institutions, including questioning the total number of hours spent working in the week as this has a significant impact on educational attainment at a later age. The burden therefore falls to us all, to rightly be concerned with our children’s supplemental education and there is no greater privilege and hence responsibility than that of a parent.