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Saturday Schools in Britain and the Question of Nurtured Isolation

Pupils praying at a Saturday school in Manchester

Non-Licensed Teachers, Unchecked Syllabi and a Greater Agend

by Raneem Hannoush

Arabic is a vital language in Britain, one attracting many people to learn it; mainly members of the Arab and Muslim communities. It bridges them with their country of origin and enables them to recite from the Qura’an.

Supplementary schools opening their doors over the weekend, especially on Saturdays, provide classes outside official school hours for students to polish and improve their Arabic language and Islamic Education. In principle, such schools can be very beneficial. However, controversy looms over some unregistered Saturday schools that are either run by Mosques around the country or are registered as “charity organisations,” especially that their Syllabi do not undergo any form of inspection.
“Weekend schools were first set up in 1972 by head teacher Abdo Khadr of the Cultural Attaché to the Egyptian Embassy,” says Dr Mohammad El-Dessouki. “Khadr set up the very first school and the main goal behind it was to conserve Arab culture and teach Arab students their mother tongue,” he elaborates. “This school started with only 10 students but has around 800 today. There are around 850 similar schools teaching Arabic and Islamic studies on Saturdays all around the country with over 4 thousand pupils. The majority of these schools are in London,” the teacher at King Fahad Academy and the head of A-Level Arabic examinations reveals to Majalla.

The first type of Saturday supplementary schools are linked to the Embassies of Arab countries in the UK and their books, syllabi and examinations are provided by the hosting country’s embassy, Dr El-Dessouki explains. However, there are some Saturday schools linked to Mosques and other independent ones that run as charities and question marks hover over the latter two.

NON-STANDARDISED SYLLABI

Syllabi taught in supplementary schools linked to Mosques or to Muslim communities in Britain are not unified or standardised, especially when it comes to Islamic studies, Dr Salah al-Ansari reveals. The common factor between different communities either from south east Asia or the Middle East is teaching students to recite the Qura’an, the Quilliam researcher explains to Majalla.

The academic specialising in anti-extremism notes that the Syllabi are affected by each community’s school of thought, and says “most are conservative Sunni, some adopt the political Islamist school of thought, and others are conservative Deobandi.”

“Even though schools of thought are varied in the Syllabi, they meet on the grounds of adopting conservative views towards women, exclusion from the wider society, and issues of gender equality,” he adds. Dr al-Ansari regards such views as “romanticised readings to certain periods of Islamic history that contradict with today’s realities in Western contexts, and even call for dismissing Western ideals.”

STAFF WITH NO PERMITS

According to British law, no person can practice teaching unless qualified and has an accredited permit. However, this law is not implemented on all teachers of supplementary schools because they are independent bodies, not regulated by “Ofsted.” According to Dr al-Ansari, “the staff members of such schools are a mix of teachers and trainers from outside Britain and others working in public and private schools in the country along with Imams from inside and outside of the United Kingdom. They might not have any credentials to teach besides their ability to read Quranic texts,” he argues.
On the same hand, Dr El-Dessouki sees that “some of those teachers are very harsh on students in Religion classes due to their lack of understanding of the educational process and the psychology of the young students.”

“Most religious education taking place in those Saturday schools are based on spoon-feeding, memorization and regurgitation, and this creates two problems. Firstly, it limits comprehension and understanding of Islamic teachings, and secondly it also creates a form of blind obedience to the teacher,” the educational expert argues.

Class time at a Saturday school in Manchester

A large number of schools that are extensions of Mosques in the UK are run by Imams from Bangladesh and Pakistan, who have a different culture to the Arabs and some have little understanding of the language beyond Quranic texts.

MYSTERY AND ISOLATION

The absence of organization and supervision has created some form of mystery regarding how supplementary schools are run and how pupils are taught. “Some of them are run under the cover of teaching pupils how to memorize Quranic texts by heart but might have other goals and a wider agenda. Some schools have the main goal of nurturing students loyal to Islam but sometimes such loyalty will cause them to drift to an unfortunate direction,” Dr El-Dessouki believes.

Dr al-Ansari cannot point out a specific case where a student of such schools was directly involved in a terrorist attack, however he notes that, “we cannot rule out the probability that most suicide bombers who were born in the United Kingdom have attended, for at least a short period of their lives, an independent Saturday school or one run by a Mosque in their areas that are usually heavily populated by Muslims such as London, Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester and other.”

“Such schools have proven to not produce pupils with the mind-sets of integration in Western societies, and due to the effect of other factors surrounding those Muslim students, this might lead to an identity crisis, a sense of isolation and an inability to belong,” Dr al- Ansari notes.

Dr El-Dessouki agrees and confirms the urgent need for real supervision of those schools and says, “these kinds of schools are in desperate need of regulation and inspection to ensure that pupils attending them do not feel like outsiders of the Western society and do not drift into isolation.”

It is worth noting that former Prime Minister David Cameron’s government called on the urgent need of regulating supplementary schools and monitoring of staff by “Ofsted”, and tightening the rules of employing teachers. However, up till today, there is no unified supervision and regulation on Saturday schools, which puts forward a set of questions regarding the future of the pupils, and the effect their isolation will have on the wider British community.

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