'Why I had to reform my Muslim-majority school so girls and boys are educated side by side'
Last month, David Cameron gave a speech that tackled head-on the challenges around Muslim integration. The setting for the speech was an outstanding school, one that the prime minister praised for having successfully built a shared community in which children of many faiths and backgrounds learn with and from each other.
Creating such an environment is writ large for principals right across the country. Obviously, our primary job is to educate the young people in our care to the best of our ability, so that they can fulfil their true potential. Equally obviously though, "educating to the best of our ability" goes far beyond just the qualifications students leave with. We have a moral duty to prepare young people for modern Britain in all its facets: tolerance; respect for others; and the celebration of success through diversity, not in spite of it. In short, British values.
Throughout my career, I have championed and celebrated fully integrated schools. In my previous role as associate principal at Ark Globe Academy in Southwark, I was proud of and inspired by the different cultures that the academy serves. They are a true reflection of London's vibrant communities. In a typical urban school, evidencing British values is all about behaviours – how we interact with each other, how we celebrate our own and other cultures, and how we deal with issues when they arise. However, since January 2015, when I joined the Crest Academies in north-west London, the challenges were of an entirely different order.
In September 2014, the Crest Academies were created from the merger of the Crest Boys' and Crest Girls' schools. The academies were registered with the Department for Education as a single mixed, non-denominational school. However, in spite of the full merger being completed, the leadership made the decision that boys and girls would continue to be taught separately, and to socialise separately.
Under these arrangements, the schools were placed in special measures as a result of low student outcomes and inadequate provision. The Ofsted report at the time concluded that the school needed to improve the quality of teaching and learning, strengthen leadership at all levels and evaluate the separate gender provision owing to the limited opportunities to prepare students fully for life in modern Britain.
Things had to change.
One year on, we have revisited the decision to educate boys and girls separately, and the start of the new school year will see the emergence of the Crest Academy, offering co-education for the first time. But this move has not been without controversy.
Interestingly, whereas students and staff have been overwhelmingly supportive of the change to a co-educational model, parents have needed more reassurance and support. Many recognise that the move will help to ensure that our teaching and learning is of better quality and will provide a better education as a result. Others fully accept the importance of boys and girls learning and socialising together, so that they are properly prepared and have confidence when they leave us – be that for university, for work, or further training.
But there are some who feel the change is not what they signed up to: single-sex education. The onus is, of course, on us to work with the parents who have reservations about a co-educational model, and to be open and transparent about what the changes mean in practice, and how we transition to this new system.
I am proud to say that after a successful induction process, where we planned every aspect of the transition, the feedback from students and staff has been outstanding. And in a couple of weeks’ time, induction days in September will see us revisit our vision and values and start to work together.
With these measures in place, I am confident that we will be able to win over the vast majority of parents, and all the more so as the impact starts to flow through our results and enhances our students' life chances.
For me, the status quo was simply not sustainable. Running two schools in parallel, split by gender, was tantamount to unhealthy segregation. The move to a single, multi-faith, proudly diverse school is the first important step to integration. Moreover, I am the principal of a secular, non-denominational school that has a large majority of Muslim students. This does not make the school a Muslim school where segregation of gender should be pursued. I have had to remind many parents that, in Islam, segregation of gender in education is not essential. Indeed, the large majority of schools in the Muslim world operate a co-educational model.
The most challenging part of this integration process is communicating to some parents that although parental choice plays an important part in children's education, in isolation it does not always result in genuine educational value. In future, everything we do will be defined by three pillars: the improvement of student outcomes; the improvement of teaching and learning; and preparing our students to be successful in their lives beyond school and university.
Critics of the concept of British values complain that it is too amorphous and lacking in precision. It defies a tick-box approach, and is undoubtedly not something that the consultants can rack up billing-hours for (though I am sure they will try). Ultimately, the concept of British values is about a set of positive behaviours that celebrate the cultural richness of this country. With our structural changes in place we can now start living and breathing those behaviours at the Crest Academy. We will then, hand on heart, be able to say that we are educating our young people to the very best of our ability, in the broadest sense.
Mohsen Ojja is Principal of the Crest Academies in Neasden, northwest London. The Crest Academies are sponsored by E-ACT