Harmony and a holy month

29th September 2006 at 01:00
Last Sunday was the start of a month of fasting for many Muslim pupils. Elaine Williams finds out how one school handles Ramadan respectfully

Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year, means giving up all food and drink between sunrise and sunset. So, no surprise that pupils can be fractious, especially in the early days. The dining hall at Westborough high, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, is largely empty. Pupils are dispersed, spending their lunchtimes in quiet rooms around the school, where prayer mats and washrooms for cleansing are at hand.

Westborough, which has an 80 per cent Muslim intake, endeavours to support pupils through fasting and spiritual reflection, even making allowances for hunger-induced irritability.

Mohammed Patel, 15,says: "When you're up at 4am to eat then arrive at school after a broken night, you can feel a bit weak. But the teachers take that into account. They also understand that we find it harder to concentrate when we're fasting and make the lessons more practical, so we're not writing all the time."

Every year school staff are sent to local mosque centres for in-service training on Muslim culture and practice, and during Ramadan they attempt to make the school day as flexible as possible.

After-school games fixtures and other activities, as well as homework and detentions, are rescheduled so pupils can be at home for prayer and the family opening of the fast; PE is cut short so pupils don't become too dehydrated or tired; internal testing and exams are avoided.

The Muslim pupils on free school lunches (more than 170 of them) are given sandwiches and drinks to take home at the end of the day.

Fasting at Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam: an act of worship of great spiritual, social and moral significance, a time of purification, of praying, doing good deeds and spending time with family.

But it is also an exacting and challenging period, and Westborough's Muslim students say they appreciate this willingness of staff to be sensitive to their needs and give support. Wajid Ali, 15, a member of the school council, says it makes students feel confident that they are understood.

"Teachers spend a lot of time with us in Ramadan, helping us through the fast and that makes us feel good to be at the school," he says.

The school liaises with parents, mosque and community leaders. For example, after-school homework clubs, which Westborough runs at local mosque centres, are shortened during Ramadan, with extra sessions held during the day at the weekend.

At a time when Home Secretary John Reid is exhorting Muslim parents to look for signs of extremism in their children, Muslim elders believe Westborough's model of respect and trust is the only effective way forward.

Asif Patel is youth project manager at the Taleen Community Centre in Saville Town, a largely Muslim quarter of Dewsbury, and a former pupil of the school.

"During Ramadan everything has to run around prayer times, but Westborough discusses that with us. It's about flexibility, about taking the pressure off our young people," he says.

Westborough has been building a relationship with Muslim elders for the past 20 years. Schools need to start small, establishing contact with the mosques over day-to-day business such as homework clubs or religious observance. Ramadan is a good time to start building these bridges.

Mohammed Ishaq, chairman of the Salfia Association in Dewsbury's Scout Hill, where Westborough also runs homework clubs, says white as well as Muslim children use the centre and visit the mosque and so grow up to understand and respect Islam.

At Westborough, Muslim children are confident that their white peers respect their fasting during Ramadan. Wajid Ali says his (white) friends are very supportive. "If they come out of the dining hall with food, they won't eat it in front of me."

Staff do everything possible to organise school events to encourage such cohesion. They hold continuing professional development days, when the school is closed for staff training, to coincide with Eid, the festival which marks the end of Ramadan. That way, says deputy head Linda Tempest, white and Asian children can celebrate Eid together, just as they do Christmas.

Joshua Brown, 12, believes this racial harmony has an effect outside school too. "Before I came to this school I didn't know half the things about Muslims I do now. They become your friends and then you pass that on outside of school."

Hiren Dhangar, 15, concurred: "We mix here and we get on. Problems happening nationally are never an issue. We talk about these things, but then it's in the past. We are all safe in school."

Mrs Tempest, who has been teaching at Westborough for the past 28 years, says building such relationships has helped during crises. Last summer the Muslim community in Saville Town was in turmoil when the homes of the family of Muslim cleric Maulana Yakub Munshi, a community leader with a reputation for preaching peace, were raided and a 16-year-old boy arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act.

The raids, which happened during a series of terrorism-related arrests in London, caused uproar and led to calls for Parliament to be recalled. The 16-year-old was known to many at Westborough. "We made specific time at registration for children to talk about any concerns and maintained an open door, but pupils took it in their stride," says Mrs Tempest.



* Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and the holiest of the four holy months

* It begins with the sighting of the new moon and starts 10 or 11 days earlier each year on the Gregorian calendar, so takes about 30 years to move through the seasons from January to December. This year it began on September 24 and ends on October 23

* As well as fasting, Muslims must abstain from chewing gum, using tobacco and sexual contact between dawn and sunset

* Although fasting is only obligatory after puberty, many younger children want to take part so primary schools must be aware that they can easily tire and lose concentration. Parents should always be consulted

* There should be a written policy for Ramadan and awareness training for staff

* Ramadan should be celebrated in assembly and through communal worship and communal Iftar, a collective breaking of the fast after sunset

* A large area should be provided for daily prayers

* Adequate arrangements need to be made for supervising fasting children during lunch hours. Ramadan clubs can be set up to provide alternative but peaceful activities

* Internal exams and parents' meetings should be avoided, as should sex and relationship education and swimming

* Schools should also avoid over-demanding physical education

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