Call of the Prophet

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Some people grow up with a faith that stays with them for the rest of their lives. Others prefer to look around. But what impact does a leader's spiritual quest have on their school? Rachel Pugh talks to three heads who have converted to Islam

Ian Fenn knows what it's like to be discriminated against. One of the 14,000 white Britons who have converted to Islam in recent years, he changed his name to Yousuf Fenn on becoming a Muslim in 1992. Thirty failed job applications later, he reverted to Ian and applied for three jobs, got three interviews and landed a deputy headship at the first.

Even now, after four years as head of Burnage high school in Manchester, he accepts that, professionally, "Yousuf" can be a barrier, and he is generally known as "Ian" in the city. But he is comfortable with his faith and with the new life that it has brought him: a second marriage to a Pakistani teaching assistant and a growing family of six children, with daughters aged nine and 10 who are quick to correct his pronunciation when he reads the Koran in Arabic. "They know it better than I do!" He also has a daughter from his first marriage.

A former classics teacher, Mr Fenn, 50, was raised as an Anglo-Catholic in south London by an Irish father and French mother and attended Sunday school from a young age. He lost his Christian faith in his 20s, he says, but by his 30s found himself craving spirituality. This, and a frustration with teaching classics, led him to youth work in Staffordshire and teaching English as a second language in Stoke-on-Trent primary schools.

There he witnessed the kind of discrimination which still makes him angry: white teachers who preferred to change Muslim pupils' names rather than learn to pronounce them, and who offered sausage rolls at school events knowing that eating pork was against some children's religion.

Befriended by a Muslim educational welfare officer, he found himself attracted to a new kind of culture. One lunchtime, witnessed by a single friend, he went to a mosque in Birmingham where he converted. "Islam," he says, "felt a very comfortable place to move to."

The inner peace and strength that he says his new faith gave him also makes his job at Burnage easier; being a Muslim, he says, has given him the vision and staying power to lead a volatile school with a difficult history.

"I try to model my behaviour on our Prophet, which means I have to be incredibly tolerant, diligent, truthful and kind. I also have to be a good, but not arrogant, leader."

It was in the playground of Burnage high school in September 1986 that 13-year-old Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was murdered after defending fellow pupils against racist taunts. The crime, which resulted in the conviction of a white boy, also aged 13, shocked the nation and led to a public inquiry.

Nineteen years on, Mr Fenn is not complacent - aggressive incidents, he says, are regrettably still common, although rarely in class - but has made academic performance a priority; 42 per cent of boys now gain five top GCSE grades, compared with 23 per cent four years ago. "I am compliant with society's desire to get lots of A-C grades, not because it is good education but because, without them, these boys will fail in society and become disenfranchised."

Serving the tough inner-city areas of Moss Side, Longsight and Levenshulme, Burnage has nearly 1,000 boys, 80 per cent from ethnic minorities and around 70 per cent Muslim, mainly from Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Middle East and Somalia. Backed by a teaching staff of 65, about a third of whom are Muslim, Mr Fenn ensures they have a prayer room and washing facilities to fit in with Islamic hygiene codes. Christmas obviously falls in the holidays, but two training days are arranged to coincide with Eid, meaning Muslim boys are not marked absent, and non-Muslims do not have to come into a virtually empty school.

English, drama and religious education are the lead subjects in Burnage's bid to become a specialist humanities college. RE is already one of the most popular subjects, with 80 per cent taking it and a better than average pass rate. "I am trying to develop a school where we are more reflective,"

says Mr Fenn. "We want to learn to be human and to redefine the school in terms of a belief system of values that are common to a number of religions."

He is fiercely against children being taken on extended holidays to the Asian subcontinent and will only authorise a maximum of 10 days' absence; boys taken away with no return dates are removed from the registers.

Several boys are the sons of imams from local mosques; at school Fenn prays alone or with his bursar, but on Fridays he prays with his pupils. He also makes a point of praying regularly in mosques in the areas where his pupils live. "It reinforces with the boys that I share their lives."

Before arriving at Burnage, Mr Fenn spent two years setting up a private school for the Manchester Islamic Education Trust, the Kassim Darwish grammar school, which is now attended by 186 boys in south Manchester. His aim was to send every boy to university, "thus providing much needed role models". But, aware of the huge numbers of children who couldn't be "touched" by his efforts in the private sector, he was drawn to Burnage, "because it has the rich cultural diversity that so inspires me and where I feel most at home". In the city he is respected as a calm and charismatic leader.

Post 911 and the July London bombings, all staff are primed to adopt a "big ears" policy, as are the mosques he attends, but Mr Fenn does not detect any radicalisation of pupils. Families were anxious that their culture would be demonised, but he praises the police, who, in his experience, have been quick to defend the Muslim community against crime.

In the long term he will measure his own success by that of his pupils. "I feel committed to these kids and this catchment," he says. "I feel I can contribute."

***** Cauthar Tooley, headteacher of Sarah Bonnell school in Stratford, east London, stands at the front of a French class, chalk in hand. As a 12-year-old pupil in a headscarf gives a barely audible answer, she writes the word for mouse on the blackboard.

"You girls are the women of the next generation," she announces to the astonished Year 7 girls. "Are you going to go out into the world like a mouse? You need to speak loudly and hold your heads up high."

It is a message Ms Tooley is aware can get her into trouble with the families of some of the Muslim pupils who make up 44 per cent of this ethnically diverse, high-performing girls' comprehensive in Newham, one of London's most economically deprived boroughs.

But as a Muslim woman herself, she is committed to equipping all her pupils - whether or not they share her religion - to play as full a role in society as possible. "Men in general will use anything at their disposal to dominate in any society and any religion," she says. "Where that happens it is not right. What Islam says about women is not necessarily the same as the customs that have arisen."

Today she is dressed in a turquoise shalwar kameez (the traditional tunic and trousers worn by Muslim women and men), but she is just as likely to wear an African print dress or a western-style trouser suit, as long as it conforms to the Islamic modesty code. She wants to show her pupils that she embraces all cultures.

Ms Tooley believes that by wearing traditional dress she is making an important statement when she meets parents and local Muslim leaders: it tells them she is on their side. She says the fact she is Muslim simplifies her dealings with less well-educated parents who confuse local customs from their country with decrees in the Koran. She has the authority to tell them that while she respects their views, she cannot implement them in a secular school. The school's success - 63 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-Cs at GCSE this year - reinforces her position.

So the niqab (face veil) and jilbab (long dress) are not allowed at Sarah Bonnell. Ms Tooley has, however, made changes to uniform policy since she took over as head in 2000 to allow Muslim girls to dress more modestly in ankle-length skirts; they can wear a specially tied headscarf for sport and full leotards for swimming.

The 55-year-old modern languages specialist, brought up as a Roman Catholic to Irish parents in London, converted to Islam in 1985, during an eight-year stint teaching in the United Arab Emirates. At the time she had just divorced after a 10-year marriage to an Iranian. "Embracing Islam seemed like a natural thing," she says.

Under her headship, the number of Muslim teachers at Sarah Bonnell has increased from two to 12; the school also has a prayer room for all pupils and toilet facilities that conform to Muslim standards.

Ms Tooley says her faith makes her more accepting of other religions. She takes into account her staff's religious observance needs when drawing up the timetable, although her own prayers often get squeezed out by her duties. She does not think it appropriate to pray with pupils because "children who are not religious might feel excluded".

She believes her links with the Afro-Caribbean community are as important in bridging cultural gaps in school as her religion. Her current husband is a Jamaican, who converted to Islam after they met.

Since 911, she has noticed that growing numbers of her pupils are wearing Islamic dress. While abhorring the London bombings, they despair that the horror of such acts has effectively silenced discussion about the injustices they feel are being committed against Islamic countries by the West.

Ms Tooley believes that communication about faith differences and respect for diversity is the antidote to radicalisation. "People in the past have tried to keep away from religion because they did not know how to tackle it," she says. "But how can treating everyone the same be seen as equality? It is bound to trample on individual needs."

***** Paul Barnes marches into the dinner hall of his north Manchester primary school, claps his hands and yells: "Right! Who's coming to pray?" A gaggle of little girls and one young boy abandon their lunches to run after him into the new school hall, grabbing prayer mats from a heap. For the next few minutes they and another dozen pupils and staff prostrate themselves in prayer, led by their headteacher.

Praying is a normal part of the day at Cheetham Hill C of E community school, where 98 per cent of the 480 children are Muslim and where, in 2004, academic results were high: 86 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in English, 84 per cent in maths and 82 per cent in science.

Mr Barnes's Islamic faith is much in evidence. Sitting at his desk, in an office crammed with plaques quoting verses from the Koran given by parents and with a model of the sacred mosque at Mecca in front of him, he says:

"My profession and my Islamic faith are the same thing; I make no distinction between them."

We meet during Ramadan and he is finding it difficult not to smoke; fasting comes more easily. Studying a list of times for sunrise and sundown, he can predict exactly when he'll be lighting his first cigarette tonight:


This wiry former mill worker from Blackburn converted to Islam after coming to Cheetham Hill school 17 years ago. He abandoned the Roman Catholic faith in which he had been brought up because of his admiration for Islam's values of "uncompromising truth, integrity and sense of community".

The process, which lasted a decade, started when he met an Iraqi student at evening classes in Blackburn. Mr Barnes helped him with English and the young Muslim man ignited the Lancastrian's interest in the Islamic faith.

After his conversion, his wife (from a devout Christian Anglo-Indian family) and his three daughters all followed suit; his wife now teaches at an Islamic prep school.

Mr Barnes is well known in the Muslim community, and his school is popular.

On Friday afternoons at the local mosque, when the imam speaks in Punjabi, Mr Barnes translates into English for those who have not understood. "That is a pretty powerful message: 'send your child to this school'." He is proud of his "waiting list", claiming it holds the names of 800 Muslim children, although a spokesman from Manchester lea refutes this, saying that only 12 children are waiting for a reception place, so the overall figure for all year groups "cannot be anything like 800".

Mr Barnes's relationship with the local diocesan board has been under strain, too. Jan Ainsworth, the director of education for Manchester diocese, says that while she is happy that "there is still a strong preference for Muslim parents to send their children to a church school because they are sure that God will have a presence there", her concern is that locally only 40 per cent of families are Muslim. "The question is whether this school is really representative of the local neighbourhood and I do not think it is." The diocese, she says, is "curious" about the waiting list.

Mr Barnes is robust in his own defence, saying he is "big friends" with the local rabbi and stood in as head at St Anne's Roman Catholic primary for a couple of months when it had no leader. Christmas is celebrated at Cheetham Hill as well as Eid; four of the school's 21 staff are Muslim and one Hindu.

Mr Barnes claims to have "excellent relations" with the Rev Daniel Barton, vicar of the parish and a school governor, with whom he has worked on issues such as deportations, and whom he invites into school once a term to give assemblies. Rev Barton, an Arabic speaker who spent two years living in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, is less enthusiastic, but says the head's relationship with him is better than with his predecessors. He echoes Ms Ainsworth's reservation about whether the local community is really being served.

Mr Barnes is fired by a conviction that schools such as his need to give Muslim youngsters a sense of pride in their identity. He tells them they don't need to apologise for their faith, that 911 and the London bombings were about politics, not religion. He takes lessons examining how Islam is portrayed in the press. Contemplating the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians, Mr Barnes says: "There are days when I could almost see myself as a suicide bomber because of the injustices I see being committed against the Muslim people."

While stressing his abhorrence of violence, he identifies with the rage he sees in UK Muslim youth. "They are being stripped of their identity and there is nothing to replace it except hardline fundamentalist religion. The only solution is to talk to them. If there's a school where Muslims can breathe and have their identities confirmed, then that school is doing a good job."

The president of the Muslim Teachers' Association, Bushra Nasir, will be speaking at the Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, WC1H 0AL on November 10, 6.30pm, on "Islam: Leadership Challenges and Opportunities Post 7 July"

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