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Leap of faith across the cultural divide

Some Muslim parents are against too much education for their daughters. Emily Clark reports on one London head who is winning them round

When one London girls' school put on Bizet's Carmen, parents of most of its pupils refused to allow them to go on stage.

The Central Foundation Girls' School in Tower Hamlets may be a performing arts college, but three-quarters of its pupils are Muslim and many of their parents believe acting conflicts with a faith which discourages mimicry and exhibitionism.

Drama is not the only subject which worries them. Each year, Patricia Hull, the head, sends out 4,500 letters to explain to parents why their daughters should take biology, sex education, religious studies and life drawing.

The letters are sent to pre-empt complaints: Darwin's theory of evolution conflicts with the Islamic belief that God created man, the prophet Mohammed prohibited the drawing of living things and drama is seen as unnecessary because it does not reflect the truth. Sex education is thought to encourage sexual activity.

Mrs Hull would love to see her students become doctors, lawyers and bankers. While the girls are enthusiastic, it has taken longer to persuade the parents. They fear that too much education will leave them unable to marry.

She said: "Our main challenge is getting parents to allow their children to go away to university. Some are concerned about what sort of society they will mix with."

Some of the brightest students have been prevented from going because parents want them to marry instead. "It is very difficult when we are trying so hard to build up their confidence," she said.

In a school with specialist performing arts status, only about a quarter of pupils are allowed to take part in productions.

Mrs Hull wants to encourage greater participation. Although most students are involved in drama classes, their parents are reluctant to allow them to perform publicly.

In productions of Carmen, Grease and The Wizard of Oz, most of the Muslim girls would agree only to work backstage.

One pupil, Fatima Begum, 16, said: "I take drama for fun and to build up my confidence but my dad does not think it is necessary. He questions it but he does not forbid it. But these days parents are less strict. Usually if you want to do education they will not stop you."

Tower Hamlets has the highest population of Muslims in London and is the most deprived borough, according to the 2001 census. But Mrs Hull believes she is finally winning parents round.

Confidence in her has increased since her appointment in 1988 and she no longer has to hold regular meetings with parents to discuss teaching materials.

And increasingly girls are making strides towards higher education and careers.

Nasra Yusuf, 15, said she was studying hard at subjects such as biology, because her ambition was to become a doctor.

She said: "My parents know that if they do not let me discuss things like Christianity there is no point in me coming to school. I want to become a doctor and my parents support me."

Mike McKeaveney, head of science, said many fears were allayed once parents understood what was being taught.

"Parents will ask me about the depth at which we are looking at things like evolution and they are usually understanding once I have explained," he said.

"They understand that for their daughters to have a good education they need to be open-minded."

To placate parents further and encourage pupils into higher education, Central has established close links with Cambridge, Leicester and Bristol universities, which have single-sex halls of residence and strong pastoral care.

Clare College, Cambridge, now offers a bursary scheme for Tower Hamlets students under its regional links programme.

Dr Polly O'Hanlon, senior tutor at the college, said: "We think it is important to start working with pupils early to give them the confidence to think about being ambitious for themselves."

Nawazish Bokhari, a member of the education committee for the Muslim Council of Britain, supported the school's work and said the attitudes of some parents were "very, very abnormal".

"Islam says to the followers they should seek knowledge wherever they can.

If the head referred the matter to the local Muslim leaders they could sort it out," he added.

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