British Muslims: Can madrasahs bridge the education gap?

Learning 2.0

Studies show that poor educational attainment and professional underachievement are prevalent amongst young British Muslims. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent development and social research charity, found that British Muslims are less upwardly mobile than their Hindu, Christian and Jewish counterparts. This trend appears consistent across Europe, where Muslims are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than non-Muslims.

Because Muslims are one of the most insular and least economically advantaged groups in Europe, there is a real need to raise aspirations, increase opportunity and mainstream the involvement of young Muslims in society. Local mosques and madrasahs can help.

Britain has an estimated 1,600 madrasahs, weekend or after-school religious learning centres, most of which are associated with mosques. As many as 200,000 Muslim children of all ethnic backgrounds – aged four to mid-teens – attend these madrasahs. The schools range from offering rote learning of religious texts to interactive places where Islamic teaching and mainstream school subjects are taught in fun and creative ways.

Mosque-based madrasahs remain popular with British Muslim families, as they are often the only places where basic Islamic education is available to children. As such, it makes them a largely untapped market for exposing young students to professional and aspirational development.

Unfortunately, some madrasahs are disconnected from the real world and the potential for children to achieve their full potential goes largely unrealised. A recent Open Society Institute report, ”Muslims in Europe: A Report on 11 EU Cities”, confirmed that teaching methods in many madrasahs, which include rote learning and strict discipline, are often out of tune with contemporary educational thinking and practice, failing to nurture the skills essential for success in the modern workplace.

Another report by the Islamic Foundation’s Policy Research Centre showed a need for more ”joined-up thinking” between messages emanating from madrasahs and those from mainstream education providers. The need for greater engagement between mosques and professional sectors is crucial in building confidence and broadening horizons for Muslims in Britain and across Europe.

One such scheme has been launched by CEDAR, a European Muslim professional network. It has partnered with Young Enterprise, the UK’s leading business and enterprise education charity, to work in collaboration with mosques to provide professional mentoring sessions within mosques themselves. This innovative approach synergises the special connections many young Muslims have with their local mosque with the wealth of professional experience of CEDAR mentors, helping to provide a learning experience that young Muslims can really engage in.

The mentoring programme seeks not only to raise the aspirations of young Muslims, but also to make introductions with Muslim professionals who can act as career role models with whom they can build long-term connections.

For example, a recent event held at Tawhid Mosque in London saw an interactive session consisting of a range of experiential learning activities for the mosque’s madrasah students and other local youth. This included life mapping (tools and techniques to help young people plan for the life they want), skills development and a competition for the best social enterprise business plan involving the building of a community centre. This competition encouraged students to think of the practical needs of their local community – comprised of Muslims and non-Muslims – beyond those of their own faith community.

Unusually, the mosque – considered to be one of the more socially conservative in Britain – allowed a mixed group of boys and girls to work together, and saw the value of a programme which allowed Muslim children to be productive in an environment more akin to the real world.

After the session, 13-year-old Bassim el-Sheikh reflected on what he had learnt: “My confidence is much better now; my teamwork is much better; my listening skills and talking skills are much better.”

Mosques in Britain are slowly trying to make themselves more relevant to youth, women and non-Muslims. The larger mosques are seeking to become more holistic centres, not just places of worship, offering English classes, basic computer courses, gym facilities and regular interfaith events.

The more that mosques and madrasahs can be plugged into mainstream society, raising the aspirations of the young Muslims that attend them and providing key life skills, the greater the chances of preventing the mental and physical ghettoisation which has afflicted some British and European Muslim communities, and of contributing to improved levels of education and professional advancement.

Asim Siddiqui is a founding board member of CEDAR, and a founding trustee of the City Circle. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


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