Minority Report

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Cornwall has the smallest number of ethnic minority teachers in the country, so when a Muslim teacher and his family moved there both children and adults were intrigued, as Nick Morrison discovers

Mubeen Azam happened to be leaving just as the coaches were collecting the pupils to take them home. He had come for an interview, and was on his way back down the hill into the village, heading for the bed and breakfast where he was to spend the night.

As he walked through the school gates, he glanced up to see a row of faces turned towards him. "The coaches were edging past me and all the kids were just looking," he says. "I suppose it was very different for them. I just smiled."

Twelve months later Mr Azam is no longer such a curiosity at Roseland Community College. But while the children may see him as just another teacher, he is still something of a rarity around these parts.

Cornwall has one of the smallest ethnic minority populations of any UK county. More than 99 per cent of its population is white. Out of its half a million people, there are fewer than 1,000 of Asian origin, and, if figures from the last census still hold, Mr Azam shares his Pakistani heritage with just 149 others.

Less than 1 per cent of teachers in Cornwall are of Asian origin. Latest figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families' annual survey record no Pakistani teachers in the county. And the last school census shows that 50 of the county's 31,000 pupils were Asian. So it's not surprising that the arrival of an Asian teacher created something of a stir.

"There isn't the diversity you get in cities, so you do end up standing out," says Mr Azam. "It's something you can't ignore."

He's now coming towards the end of his first year at Roseland, also his first year of teaching. Roseland is a 617-pupil secondary in the village of Tregony, midway between St Austell and Truro and about 45 miles from Land's End, as far as you can go in mainland Britain before tumbling into the Atlantic. The school serves a largely rural area and has a catchment area of 150 square miles.

Jane Black, the headteacher, stresses that Mr Azam's appointment was made purely on merit, but acknowledges it has had collateral benefits. "One of our aims as a school is to introduce our quite isolated rural children to the wider world, making them more aware of multi-cultural Britain," she says.

"However hard we try, we are not going to be as representative of British society as the rest of the country. Our children's access to different cultures is very limited, so this is a real opportunity."

As an RE teacher and practising Muslim, Mr Azam is also in a position to give the children an insight into a religion they may not come across outside of textbooks and the media. The start of this school year coincided with the start of Ramadan, giving him an opportunity to talk to his classes about why he was fasting, and what fasting means to Muslims.

"I didn't know what hit me, starting my NQT (newly qualified teacher) year, a new way of life and fasting on top of that," he says. "The kids thought I was crazy, but I was able to explain to them why Muslims fast and the meaning of the fast.

"It was difficult but I got through it, although the next month they had to get used to seeing me eating and drinking. I still have questions about whether I'm going to fast this year."

He also prays five times a day. During the shorter days of winter, specified prayer times fell during the school day, so Mr Azam used his classroom. "If somebody walked in, I had to explain to them later that when I ignored them I wasn't being rude, I was doing my prayers." His tutor group has also invited pupils to come and watch their teacher praying. "They're not going to see it anywhere else," he adds.

His willingness to discuss his own beliefs and practices provides scope to challenge stereotypes, Mrs Black says. "It has made an enormous difference because he is a real person," she adds. "He is not a photograph in a textbook or someone in a DVD. He is very open about himself and his culture, and it is an opportunity for the children to learn first-hand about something they normally would not come across."

At the same time, the school has worked hard not to treat their RE teacher as the token Muslim, despite the extra attention he receives, she says. "He has coped more than admirably and we feel privileged to have him with us."

Pete Harris, head of humanities at Roseland, says Mr Azam has added to pupils' experiences of RE. "We picked Mubeen because he was the best candidate; that was of the utmost importance for us," he says.

"He has brought qualities any good teacher would bring, and being a Muslim he has brought an added dimension."

But it has also proved a challenge to Mr Azam's own beliefs. He has been forced to address some negative comments about Islam from pupils, such as that all Muslims are terrorists or that Islam treats women poorly. Teaching RE means he can tackle some of these issues in his lessons.

"I'm not going to change everybody's views, but the nature of the subject is to challenge people's perceptions and give them a greater awareness. Whenever anything is said about another religion it is an opportunity to challenge it," he says.

"It also makes you think about your religion more. You are asked a lot of challenging questions and you need to address these issues."

For the children, having an Asian teacher is no longer a novelty. "It's quite cool, actually," says Beth, 12, at the end of a Year 7 lesson on Buddhism. She says Mr Azam has helped her realise that there are more wars going on than those where British soldiers are involved.

"He knows more about different religions," says Samuel, 11. Katharine, 12, adds: "He can tell us more about Muslims than anyone else. It's good to know about other religions."

Cornwall may seem an unusual destination for someone born and brought up in Manchester, but Mr Azam, 33, and his wife Nour developed a love of the South West after studying at Exeter University, where he took a masters degree in Islamic philosophy and then his PGCE.

The county's beauty was one of its main attractions, as was the low crime rate, making it an appealing place for the couple to raise their baby daughter, Fatimah, now just over two. Another draw was the baby pink thatched cottages - his wife's dream was to live in a such a cottage. Then they saw the price, so they rented a house in Truro instead.

He knew that adjusting to life in Cornwall wouldn't be easy. Even in Exeter, which he describes as ethnically diverse in comparison, he was on the receiving end of racist abuse. During his PGCE year he was conscious of being a "Muslim artefact", used by lecturers to illustrate any reference to Islam. "At first you feel uncomfortable, but you get used to it," he says.

As well as leaving behind family and friends, he has also moved to a county with no visible Muslim community or focal points, a deficiency that is particularly noticeable during religious festivals.

The county has no religious centre for Muslims, after the closure of a mosque in Truro five years ago following complaints by local residents over increased traffic.

Two years ago, a proposal to build a mosque in Newquay, with developers including the Duchy of Cornwall, met protests from the Newquay Mosque Opposition Group. Opponents dressed in burkhas at a village carnival, portraying themselves as "Page 3 Pin-ups from the Ramalamadingdong Times".

Mrs Black was alert to the potential difficulties, and before her new RE teacher arrived she contacted the county council's diversity and equality service. "There was an enormous interest in him, and in some ways a certain pride that we had him in Cornwall," she says.

The council arranged to meet Mr Azam when he arrived, and offered support wherever it was needed, as well as holding meetings to see how he was settling in.

"It seemed to me quite likely that he would need additional support," says Mrs Black. "Not only was he a newly qualified teacher, but he was someone coming out of their own environment."

"It is different here," adds Mr Azam. "You get past Devon and something just hits you, there's a feeling you're entering somewhere new. It's quite insular and monocultural."

He gets the usual jokes from family and friends: asking what time it is in Cornwall, whether they need a visa to come and visit. Even though the couple spent a year in Lebanon, where his wife's family originated, the South West seems another step to some.

"My parents worried when I went to Exeter, they worried when I went to Lebanon, and they really worried when I came here," he says.

His wife is perhaps even more visible. She wears the headscarf in public - the only woman the couple have seen doing so in Truro - and it is not unusual for adults and children alike to stop and stare.

Most people are surprised to hear she can speak English, and some mothers were initially reluctant to approach her when she started going to mother and toddler groups, although most are now very friendly.

The couple have made a point of discovering their new home, spending every other weekend exploring Cornwall. As a result, they have visited some of the more out-of-the-way places, and are regularly asked if they are just down for the week, on the assumption that they must be tourists.

"I believe we have been to places where no Muslim has ever been. You can tell by the reaction we get," says Mr Azam.

But although he admits to still feeling like a novelty at times, he insists the reaction is not always suspicious. Young children can be the most open-minded, asking his wife why she wears a headscarf and showing an interest in her religion, while Mr Azam once received a text from his wife at school, saying she had been approached by an elderly gentleman who said how wonderful she looked, telling her to "keep it up".

His wife has been into school twice, the first time to sell her homemade cakes at the Christmas fair. Pupils were shy of approaching her at first, but the cakes, and Fatimah, helped break the ice. Although there have been bumps on the way, he says both he and his family are very happy in Cornwall, and he is delighted to be staying at Roseland. "It's not been a bed of roses, but the positive things far outweigh the negative," he says.

"My family thought we were crazy to come to Cornwall, but we're quite open-minded and we're up for it. We have very much enjoyed it. It makes you think and gives you a completely different perspective when you live somewhere like this. We're not trying to change the world, but we like a challenge."

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