Education, Islam and Extremism

08 August 2016

Sir Michael Barber, keynote speaker at this year's Inspiring Leadership conference, comments on education, Islam and extremism in UK schools

A few years ago the Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, visited Selly Park Girls' School in Birmingham. He was immensely impressed.

Soon afterwards I was with him in Lahore where he was launching the next phase of radical education reform in Punjab. He began by departing from his script; he described the wonderful school he had seen in Birmingham and concluded: "In the UK they care as much about the Muslim girls as they do about the Christian girls." And we might add those of other faiths and none. We take this for granted of course, but it is a powerful and positive feature of our education system to be cherished.

In interviews my team carried out recently with teenage Muslim girls from Mulberry School in East London, they made a similar point. 'This is an amazing country to grow up a Muslim', one of them said as the others nodded.

The girls also emphasized just how strongly Islam reinforces the importance of education. After all, the first instruction of the Quran is 'Read'. Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban attacked for simply wanting to learn, expressed the point very simply – "Islam does believe in education", she says.

The evidence confirms this view. Bangladeshi students in England now outperform the national average at GCSE and Pakistani students are closing the gap. This seemed unthinkable two decades ago.  Americans, faced with stubborn gaps between White and African American students, look enviously at the progress we've made.

This positive context is important as we address the complex and challenging issues schools face in tackling extremism - something we sensitively explored at a panel discussion I chaired at the Inspiring Leadership conference in Birmingham last week.

The purposes of the panel were, first, to deepen a shared understanding of the opportunities as well as the challenges Islam poses to educators here, and to ensure that Muslim students themselves had a voice in that conversation; and second, to develop a practical agenda to assist schools faced simultaneously with regulations on extremism which pose genuine dilemmas and a media which portrays an overwhelmingly negative view of Islam as a whole.

During the discussion, four strong messages came from the head teachers on the panel and those in the audience.

Firstly, we need to insist that every student in this country, whatever their background, is entitled to a full, rounded curriculum including art, music, drama and sport. This should be a guarantee. Where necessary, school leaders need to be in active dialogue with parents and the community, explaining why this is important and what this means in practice.

Secondly, we need to tackle extremism vigorously and report extremist behavior as required by the regulations - but this needs to be done at the same time as respecting and valuing the contribution that Islam makes to schools and our society.

As Vanessa Ogden, head of Mulberry School, put it – "Don't problematise Islam as a whole".

Crucially – and thirdly - schools have a role to play in replicating the forum we sought to create at the Conference. As Barrie Philips, who leads these efforts in Wales put it, schools need to create safe circumstances in which students and teachers can debate and discuss difficult and controversial subjects. Many schools would welcome curriculum materials that supported them in this respect. Only in this way can bigotry be tackled.

Finally, it became clear how difficult it is for school leaders to enable conversations of this kind. Vanessa Ogden and Christine Mitchell (from Clifton Primary School in Birmingham) demonstrated on the panel both an absolute commitment to the values this country holds dear and a depth of respect for, and willingness to learn about, the communities they serve which was extraordinary. No-one pretends getting any of this right is easy, but it is clear that the sophisticated way school leaders build relationships with highly diverse (and sometimes conflicting) interests is fundamental.

On public service reform I always argued for a judicious combination of challenge and support.  We have rightly given schools a role in preventing extremism, but not yet offered sufficient, practical support. The Welsh Assembly Government is ahead of England here, as Barrie Phillips explained.

Meanwhile the headteacher associations are also stepping up. ASCL, for example, has been in dialogue with Islamic religious scholars about how to support Muslim students taking exams during Ramadan.

The government in Westminster now needs to heed school leaders who want more practical support and advice. Regulations and ministerial speeches are not enough.

The former Secretary of State Nicky Morgan is sympathetic but officials have understandably been uncertain as to the way forward. The message of the Inspiring Leadership Conference is that there are school leaders ready with practical advice; the Department for Education needs to distill their wisdom.

We mustn't allow the conversation about extremism to take place only in the eerie echo chamber of the Internet, or among frustrated young people on empty street corners.

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To view Sir Michael Barber's panel session video please click here [video will open in a new window].

To hear what the students of Mulberry School for girls think about issues affecting them and life in Great Britain as a young Muslim, please click here [video will open in a new window].

For some short clips of panelists relfections after the panel event at Inspiring Leadership, please click here [video will open in a new window].

Training materials for teachers

Countering radical ideologies: Respect and tolerance for all, episodes 1-5

Countering radical ideologies: Respect and tolerance for all, introduction, lessons and references

Challenging extremism