Religion - Diversity within Muslim community 'unrecognised'

20th September 2013 at 01:00
Study findings dispel myth of homogeneity among families

Muslim children are suffering in schools because staff often do not realise that they come from a variety of backgrounds within the Muslim community, frequently speak different languages and differ in their interpretation of Islam, a study has revealed.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh who examined the educational experiences of Muslim families discovered "diverse views" on issues such as sex education, food and dress, even within a relatively small group of parents.

The study from the university's Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity also found that only a minority of Muslims favoured Islamic faith schools.

Nuzhat, a mother living in Scotland, told researchers: "You can't have separate workplaces, so if they have separate education it would be difficult for them to communicate later on."

For the majority, the academic reputation of the school was the overriding concern, with religious teaching seen as the responsibility of the family rather than the school.

Sex education in school caused great concern to many of the 25 Scottish and 13 English families interviewed; some said the content taught in UK schools did not fit with Islamic values and was being covered too early.

With regard to dress, the majority of parents interviewed stressed the need for modesty, especially for girls. The kit worn for physical education could, therefore, cause problems. In addition, most parents felt it was inappropriate for their children - daughters in particular - to participate in mixed gender swimming once they reached puberty.

At one school, swimming classes were single-sex but "the point was lost", said one mother, because the instructor was sometimes male and the pool lifeguard was also male.

Interviewees also talked about the mistaken belief that all Muslims were vegetarian. Many parents and young people complained about the lack of provision of halal food in school. In some cases, schools were also unaware that Muslims did not eat pork and that this included ham.

Umar, who was educated at a Scottish school and who had just started university, said: "They could do more, especially with the food... we have to say we're vegetarian, then we bring a (halal) chicken sandwich or something, and they say, 'I thought you didn't eat chicken.' I told all my friends at school how it worked, they all know."

Meanwhile, Fozia, a mother, said: "There is not much awareness in school... sometimes they serve ice cream with raspberry swirls in it, but that contains gelatine and they cannot have it."

Muslim students of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin in England achieve below the white UK average in school at age 16. However, the situation south of the border is improving and, in Scotland, Muslim students perform better than average at the same age and stage.

The majority of Muslim parents have "high educational aspirations" for their children, said Elisabet Weedon, one of the researchers involved in the three-year study.

Education was seen as important in part because of the changing labour market, with traditional occupations such as running small shops not available to the same extent.

However, better-off and better-educated Muslim parents were more able to realise their ambitions for their children than socially disadvantaged parents.

There was no evidence that girls were being denied further or higher education, the researchers said.

The report Muslim Families' Educational Experiences in England and Scotland concludes: "Schools need to engage sensitively with individual parents, listen to their concerns and those of their children to ensure that each child has full and flexible access to the curriculum."

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