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'Many young Muslim students simply don't know how to pursue their ambitions'

Jonathan Freeman, national director, Mosaic Business in the Community, writes:

Recent improvements in the educational achievement of minority ethnic students are to be lauded, but it would be a mistake to think that these improvements were even denting the disparity in long-term life chances of these young people.

It is still the case that black pupils remain the lowest performing ethnic group at GCSE, with those from Pakistani backgrounds performing only slightly better. The relatively small amount of research into the reasons for the educational under-achievement of Muslim students posits explanations around poverty, social deprivation and language difficulties, but also suggests that there are further obstacles to their full achievement of potential that relate more specifically to their experiences as Muslims. Suggested reasons cited include a lack of Muslim role models in schools, the low expectations that some teachers have of Muslim students, and the lack of recognition of students' Muslim identity. 

As schools improve the educational achievement of all students from all backgrounds, we must also ensure that wider support exists to ensure that all students can make the most of their exam success.

It is now, thankfully, accepted that positive aspirations play a crucial role in the educational and professional achievement for all young people. Recent DfE statutory guidance on careers advice quite rightly states that "schools should help every pupil develop high aspirations and consider a broad and ambitious range of careers".

Young people are more likely to achieve positive outcomes when they develop ambitious, achievable aspirations, combined with the self-esteem, self-efficacy, information and inspiration they need to persevere towards their goals.

The "aspirations/attainment gap" is the result of a number of factors: a lack of information about how to realise those ambitions, too few role models, and importantly, no contacts (or social capital) to bridge into professions. In providing careers advice and inspiration, schools must appreciate that those from minority ethnic groups find it particularly difficult to turn their aspirations into reality.

This year, HRH The Prince of Wales' Mosaic initiative, part of Business in the Community, for which I work, has delivered mentoring programmes in over 200 schools connecting 6,000 young people with more than 1,000 volunteer mentors largely drawn from Muslim backgrounds.

We know from this work that many young Muslims are hugely motivated by the inspirational role models who volunteer with us. Our volunteers have achieved success, often despite all the barriers that the students in the schools in which we operate face. Through our mentoring programmes, they have a transformative impact on the outlook on the young people. Our mentors are able to forge a connection with their mentees that others cannot.

Young people are too often inured to the exhortations of parents and teachers to work hard – they expect this and discount the importance of these messages. They look at a world in which they know all too well how hard it will be for them and come to the conclusion "why bother"? But our mentors provide them with everyday examples of how individuals, from very similar backgrounds, can and do succeed; that it is worth the effort.

Many of the young people with whom we work simply do not know the pathways to their ambitions nor do they know the support available to them. Their families and friends too often don't have the social networks that, sadly, remain all too important to career success.Indeed, their families often have very narrow views of suitable careers for their children or, on the other hand, unrealistic views as to what is required.

For example, explaining to a parent that their child's Law BTEC was not sufficient to get them a job at a City law firm (indeed, in any legal practice) was a difficult conversation for one mentor. Engaging parents is crucial as it helps them to understand what their children are capable of and how important their role is in supporting them. Many of our schools tell us that this increased parental engagement, of parents too often written off as "too hard to reach", is the most positive impact of the programme.

Faced with this massive information gap, coupled with strong cultural expectations of "appropriate" careers, it is imperative that schools close the gap between education and the world of work by ensuring that their pupils have access to role models from a range of backgrounds relevant to their students' backgrounds and providing more access to the world beyond education.

An integral part of our programme is organising visits to workplaces for the mentees. We try to ensure that these visits lift the sights of those on our programmes, taking the students to places of work at which they would simply never have dreamt that "someone like them" could ever work.

Supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds is tough, takes time and a lot of patience and a willingness to look at the world from their perspective. But it is so worth it. Mentoring is a fantastic way to show them that it is possible to succeed, to realise their dreams and that they have a right to such dreams.

Mentors who have a connection with these young people can show them that it is worth striving. Our mentors are pretty tough on their charges: they don't make excuses for them, they don't let them settle for second best. Rather, they show them what it will take to succeed, they are honest with them that it will almost definitely be harder for them, they help them to play the game, and they support them when they don't quite make it on the first, second or even third attempt.

Finally, we have learned that it is simply not enough to create the opportunity for these young people. We have to help them to grasp that opportunity, we have to convince them that they deserve that opportunity – that they have the right to that opportunity – and ensure our mentors support them on their journey.

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