Iqra in Brixton is the first Muslim school to achieve voluntary aided status since the 2005 London bombings. Its headteacher believes many more are needed to give Muslims the same educational choice as other religious groups. Yojana Sharma reports
The children in the playground are as boisterous as anywhere else, although somehow the girls keep their tasteful, lace-edged headscarves neat and clean. What marks out this primary playtime are the supervising teachers and assistants, some of whom wear the jilbab, the gown that reaches down to their toes. Several also wear the niqab, leaving only a slit for the eyes.
But this is only because work is going on at the mosque next door and workmen overlook the playground. Indoors, away from prying eyes, teachers uncover their faces. They are just as approachable as any other primary teachers, dispensing hugs in a loving atmosphere.
The "niqabis", as headteacher Firdos Qazi calls them, are the only clue that Iqra School in Brixton, south London, is not just another school serving a multicultural catchment area. The books on the table, the presentations on the walls, the songs the children sing - all are what you would expect to find in any other primary school.
Iqra - the word means "to learn" in Arabic - follows the national curriculum. It has had its first Ofsted inspection, in which it was judged satisfactory, and this September it will be the first Muslim faith school to achieve voluntary aided, state funded status since the London bombings of July 2005.
Catholics and Jews all have large numbers of faith schools in the state sector. "The Muslim community is not asking for anything different," says Ms Qazi.
Arabic is taught as a foreign language - playfully, much as French is taught at other primaries. A Koranic expert comes in from the mosque next door to take Islamic studies, and pupils learn about other faiths in a respectful way.
Iqra, a mixed primary with children from nursery to age 11, has been running in a large, run-down Victorian house since 1994. Parents were charged fees, and paid up sporadically, but it was important to get voluntary aided status.
"If parents do not have the option of state Muslim schools, they have to give up what the host community has to offer and send their children to what I call `prisons' - dingy Muslim private community schools that don't have resources or trained teachers," Ms Qazi says.
"With any other religion, you can have both a quality British education and a faith education, but as a Muslim you can't."
Muslim parents - like any others - want the best for their children. "They recognise that the national curriculum delivers a quality education that will allow their children to do well," she says.
The school was teaching a limited national curriculum, with many teachers highly committed and travelling long distances to the school, though unqualified. With two-thirds of parents on state benefits and fees of pound;1,700 per child, teachers could only be paid about pound;8,000 a year - a third of what a newly qualified teacher earns in the state sector. To deliver more, the school needed qualified teachers.
"`Independent' is a strange thing to call schools of this nature," Ms Qazi says. For her, the word conjures up the likes of Eton and Harrow. But most Iqra parents would be happy in the state sector. Muslims were not asking for separate education, Ms Qazi says - "but they do want their faith catered for". "These are self-started community schools, set up by people who care about education," she explains. "For them, state education has a lot to offer, but some needs are not met, including faith needs."
It is no accident, she says, that Muslim state schools all have long waiting lists. There are more than 1,000 on the waiting list of Gatton, a successful, purpose-built Muslim school in Tooting, south London, where Ms Qazi previously worked and helped gain voluntary aided status when it opened in 2004.
"That does not mean every Muslim child should go to a Muslim school - to have the choice is the main thing," she says.
Without choice, some 100,000 children attend mosque schools in the UK. Many attend state schools during the day and Koranic schools in the evening, making it a very long day for young children.
Ms Qazi believes the educational needs of Muslims are generally not met. A third of British Muslims of working age have no qualifications, according to a report published in April by the Office for National Statistics. This creates a cycle of poor opportunities, frustrated ambition and despair, which in turn fuel radicalisation or rioting.
Ms Qazi is well aware of that, having grown up in Oldham, where race riots took place in 2001. She came to England from Uganda in the 1960s at the age of seven with her parents, who were originally from Pakistan. "I was the only Asian girl in the school," she says. "I loved my education here - every minute of it. It pains me to see what happened in Oldham."
She believes the riots were rooted in educational issues. As she sees it, liberal approaches to reading in the 1970s meant that many failed to acquire adequate literary skills. But it was not just immigrants who were affected, she believes. Rather, everyone was failed by the system.
"While they were floundering, life passed them by," she says. "The additional pressure on immigrants is colour. It makes you stand out so that you are even more unlikely to recover from a bad start.
"If you are not able to take part in what is going on around you through lack of education, lack of understanding, lack of opportunities, you are going to end up with parallel lives."
Her remarks are clearly a reference to the damning post-riot reports that described Oldham as a community divided on racial lines.
She does not want to see another generation of Muslims condemned to a substandard education. Hence her determination, and that of Iqra school's British-born trustees, to provide high-quality education.
That has been an uphill struggle for Iqra. "It is a fraught process to bring a school into the state sector," says Ms Qazi. "Many times I thought, `We'll never make it.'"
In April, the London borough of Lambeth set 15 academic and pastoral targets for Iqra, expecting that the process would take about 18 months. But they were achieved in just six months. Parents who had been paying fees of pound;1,700 per child had to pay pound;2,500 to help fund the improvements.
Lambeth, she believes, does not want a weak school. "But if you are starved of funds for so many years, how do you become a strong school?" she says. "We had 120 pupils, and at the beginning of the month only 10 fees were in hand.
"For two months, I had no resources for the school at all - no books, paper, pencils. We became experts at begging, borrowing, scavenging, scrounging, persuading, cajoling."
Teachers, already on low salaries, did not get paid for three months as money was channelled towards getting the premises up to scratch.
Then, finally, the local authority agreed a pound;250,000 grant. "It was not enough to run a state school, but we knew that if we were not state funded we would be closed, and the repercussions it would have had on the community would have been huge," says Ms Qazi. "People of every faith and of no faith came together and supported us."
Even so, she acknowledges that the 2005 London bombings were a massive setback. "It undid everything we had done here for 40 years," she says. "The Government says it is in favour of faith schools, but it seems harder than it used to be. Muslim causes have taken a huge hit."
But even without that setback, Ms Qazi says procedures for community schools to join the state sector could be made easier. "It is a very difficult process," she says.
Within two days of the announcement earlier this month that Iqra would become voluntary aided, the school received more than 100 applications for places.
Pupils already come from as far away as Haringey in north London and Croydon in the south, although half live locally in Lambeth. The pupils include African, Caribbean, Asian, mixed-race and converts. About 60 per cent are Somali, a reflection of the local community.
Ms Qazi is to leave in September to look for new challenges, but she believes there will soon be a Muslim secondary in south London. "There is a need and a demand, and it will happen," she says.
In the meantime, for those who cannot yet go on to Muslim secondaries, what they learn in primary is a good basis for life.
"The children here have learnt to be respectful, kind, pleasant, welcoming and loving," she says.
WATERING THE ROOTS OF COMMUNITY COHESION
Iqra School has its roots in the local community, and its pupil intake strongly reflects that. Community cohesion, which every faith school has a duty to promote, is what the school is all about, says headteacher Firdos Qazi.
"The Government makes it seem as if community cohesion and multiculturalism were mutually exclusive, two separate circles," she says. "But there is a huge overlap. You don't have to discard one to have the other."
The classroom walls display work from a project on Judaism, and children are taught about other faiths with respect, as prescribed in the national curriculum.
Ms Qazi believes that pushing community cohesion has negative connotations. "It is as if that cohesion is not there in the first place and has to be enforced," she says.
She says "Britishness" has changed since she first arrived in the UK 40 years ago, when she felt strongly British. She believes this is because there has been a general moral decline in the country.
"I want to be part of what Britain was," she says. "A place where communities can work together and live together. Modern Britain has lost some of those things, and we have a duty to bring it back."
Ms Qazi believes faith schools will bring back the neighbourly, community- oriented aspects that British society appears to have lost.
"The whole point about faith is that it is about the community," she says.
`A VEIL DOESN'T MAKE ME SEPARATE'
Nadiath Adjibade (pictured left) is the reception teacher at Iqra school in Brixton, south London. When she is outdoors she wears the jilbab, or long black gown, and the full veil, or niqab, leaving only her eyes visible.
Her parents are Muslim and originally from Benin in West Africa. They came to England when Ms Adjibade was just two years old. "I was brought up Muslim in name only," she says.
She attended a state school in London and first adopted the hijab - a headscarf - when she started at university, and then the niqab "as a way of practising my religion more".
But Ms Adjibade does not see herself as separate from British society. "My teaching placement was in a Catholic school," she says. "The children were warm and welcoming. It was a wonderful experience."
At the end of her teaching practice, she was offered a job there, she adds.
She believes that wearing the veil makes no difference to her qualities as a teacher and her ability to communicate.
"How does the face veil prevent me imparting the knowledge I have?" she says.
Photographs: Teri Pengilley.