She has an MBE and served as high sheriff of Leicestershire, but Freda Hussain is no establishment poodle. This progressive head has used her contacts to turn round her largely Muslim school and won over parents in the process. She's even cracked the dress code conundrum. Wendy Wallace reports
Moat community college in Leicester is the ultimate inner-city school, ringed by tower blocks and with lower-rise housing pressed up against it.
Built in the 1970s, the school was named in a nod to the county's rich history, but according to principal Freda Hussain, the word "moat" did not mean anything to students at the school. "It was just a word," she says. So the school decided to give it a more modern meaning and made it an acronym of "Maximising our achievement together".
This approach, of adapting the institution to fit the students, is the hallmark of the school. Formerly vice-principal, Mrs Hussain took on the leadership of Moat in 1991, since when she has created a unique institution. It might not be a swanky new specialist college or city academy, but Moat is nonetheless a model for how schools might deal with pressing educational issues.
Moat community college works with an embattled section of British society: young Muslims. More than 90 per cent of its 1,050 students are Muslims, with small minorities of Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. Many aspects of school life have been adjusted to reflect the culture and religion of the Muslim students. Friday afternoons are timetabled to allow pupils to visit the mosque for lunchtime prayers if they wish. PE is taught separately for boys and girls, by same-sex teachers; school trips are also taken separately. In the canteen, meat is halal, cheese vegetarian and any frying is done in vegetable oil. "Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and vegans can choose food that is appropriate," says Freda Hussain. "It stopped being a controversial issue."
Mrs Hussain, who came to Britain from Pakistan in the 1960s, treads an unusual path between the British establishment and grassroots Muslim communities. An MBE, and made high sheriff of Leicestershire last year (see box), she has contacts at the top levels of the judiciary and police, but is also in touch with families and religious representatives in inner-city Leicester.
She has the confidence to take a robust line in school on culturally sensitive issues such as dress and extended leave. Moat does not have a uniform; many students dress in conventional Islamic style and most girls wear headscarves. But Mrs Hussain, whose religion is only visibly evident from a discreet gold necklace spelling "Allah", draws the line at girls covering their faces. "I want to know who is in my school," she says.
Mrs Hussain is regularly approached by other heads asking what they should do about a child who wants to wear a headscarf in school. Modesty is an internal quality, she advises, but there should be no objection to a scarf in school colours until governors have debated the issue. The recent case of Shabina Begum, who won a Court of Appeal case against Denbigh high school in Luton after governors excluded her for wearing the jilbab, shows the potential pitfalls for schools. As a Muslim (and the author of a book on Muslim women), is it easier for Mrs Hussain to set sensitive boundaries? "The community are aware that I'm a Muslim and I know what I'm talking about," she says. She invokes the Koran where necessary to back up her position, but is careful to stay out of sectarian divides within Islam.
Political feelings sometimes run high among students; a few told her after the World Trade Center bombings in 2001 that they did not need GCSEs, as they would be fighting jihad (holy war). She emphasised a no-blame approach, and held a multi-faith service of remembrance in school. Anger still rises from time to time, she says, when students see pictures of soldiers maltreating Iraqi prisoners. "These images stay with people long after the event. I continuously try to counteract that by talking about peace and understanding."
Leicester has one of the highest ethnic minority populations in England.
Over the past decade, secondary schools here have polarised along religious lines. "There is a divide," says Mrs Hussain. "I have no easy answers to that." She has spoken out against the creation of a voluntary-aided Islamic school in Leicester, and was reported by the school's sponsors to the Commission for Racial Equality for her views. Politicians in the city and nationally are trying to be politically correct, she says, and "signing up to things that long term will not help to build bridges".
"If those children have only been to school with other Muslims, how will they have the social skills to move into further education and the world of work?"
The battle for improvement at Moat has been waged on many fronts. Local people are free to picnic on the school lawn in summer and to use the all-weather sports pitch at the weekends. "We have tried to make a wider resource for a community where there is not a lot for people to do," says Mrs Hussain. There are adult education classes in English and computing, but also women-only classes in advanced baking and Punjabi dressmaking.
Moat has also broadened its curriculum. From Year 10, pupils can opt for vocational GCSEs in art and design or manufacturing, taught with Leicester College; business studies; and Gujarati.And all key stage 4 pupils do the accredited "work-related achievement programme"as their PSHE course. Exam results have risen, from 28 per cent getting five A*-C GCSEs in 2001 to 43 per cent in 2004, and the proportion getting top grades has improved substantially, as has the number entering further education. There is a waiting list for Year 7 and numbers are up almost 50 per cent.
Freda Hussain is also trying to work with what she calls "complementary" schools. A survey of students revealed that most attended madrasa school at the mosque in the evenings; more than three-quarters of Year 10 boys said they went. Mrs Hussain hopes to get more recognition of what children learn there, perhaps working with them to deliver Arabic at GCSE. A local imam sits on the governing body, along with Muslim parents.
At the same time, there is a real commitment to the most troubled students.
"Move" is a nurture group for eight Year 7, Year 8 or Year 9 students; there is another small unit for those at risk of exclusion. "We equip them with the skills they need to survive and to access learning," says Mark Mitchley, head of inclusion. "They need confidence, to be shown how to deal with their anger. It tends to be naughty little boys, and we do succeed with about 80 per cent."
The biggest problem at Moat, she says, is the disruptive children from white working-class backgrounds, although she thinks the label "working class" is due for reconsideration. "Are their parents working? Have they ever worked? The term has a deficit built into it; we talk about other ethnic groups without a class label attached."
Mrs Hussain, like her pupils, is unlikely to suffer from boredom. She whips out a three-page list of bodies she is in contact with, ranging from Leicester University to the Department for Education and Skills, police and local media. "You have to have those links," she says. "I can ring up virtually any group and have first-hand access. I spread myself thinly, but I can get things done for school."
Dressed up in a green velvet suit, with a lace ruff at her neck and ostrich feathers on her hat, Freda Hussain was dubbed "the high witch" by her small granddaughter. For the 12 months up to March she was high sheriff of Leicestershire, appointed by the Queen to a role with a 1,000-year history.
The high sheriff has a remit to oversee law and order on behalf of the Crown, translated more recently in Leicestershire into support for the charity Crimebeat.
Freda Hussain used her time in office to make links. Crown Court judge Sir James Hunt conducted an assembly at Moat community college; an imam read in church. She rubbed shoulders with fellow sheriffs with helicopter landing pads in their gardens, while funding her own tenure on a headteacher's salary. "Part of the beauty of the role is that you do it independently, which gave me the freedom to bring teaching and learning into it," she says.
Mrs Hussain commissioned a citizenship curriculum booklet for key stage 4, Young People: law, order and the criminal justice system. The 44-page booklet, developed with funding from the Probation Service and Moat's education action zone, aims to increase young people's awareness of the criminal justice system and the impact of crime. Police, courts, the Connexions service, youth offending teams and prison staff all made contributions. The accredited module covers 20 lessons, giving students the opportunity to debate why society needs laws, get an understanding of drugs legislation and consider whether prison works.
Freda Hussain believes few pupils get an adequate understanding of the criminal justice system. "If schools were actually teaching young people about law and order, that would act as both a deterrent and a basis for dialogue about how we can improve the situation," she says.
For more information on Young People: law, order and the criminal justice system, contact Freda Hussain at email@example.com