Zafar Ali is the chair of governors at IQRA Primary School in Slough. It's a voluntary-aided Islamic primary school and was established in 2008. In our first 'From the frontline' post, Zafar talks to us about his past and the experiences that encouraged him to take up the challenge of creating the school. He reflects on the struggles the school faced, and on how being bold has reaped rewards.
I have often been asked why I supported the creation of an Islamic faith school. People forget that before asking this question, they should really reflect on whether any faith schools should exist. Since they do exist, and since the Equality Act 2010 protects all faiths that meet its definitions, including Islam, objections to faith schools that are not Christian in character are not valid because they are not consistent. Either we have faith schools for all recognised faiths, or none at all.
My conversion to the value of faith schools does not come from my own faith as a Muslim. My core support for the value of faith schools stems from my education at what was then St Mary Redcliffe School, a Church of England school in Bristol. I was the only non-Christian at the school during my secondary years, and will always be grateful for the way I was welcomed and treated as equal. I was never made to feel as though I was an outsider. The values that I am discussing today were ingrained throughout the whole life of the school, which was testament to the school's enlightened thinking and vision. These values were tolerance, equality, democracy and respect for other faiths.
I came to this country in 1954 – I was three years old. The education I've received here has never shaken either my own faith or my commitment to respecting the faiths of others. It has only enhanced both.
Let me share a memory that I will never forget. The headteacher at the school called in my parents one day to discuss whether I would take part in religious education classes and morning assemblies which, in the 60s, were very religiously oriented. My parents asked that I attend the meeting, which I did. The head said that as I was a Muslim he would understand if my parents did not want me to take part in RE and assemblies. Just imagine the freedom I was afforded in 1963! The meeting was very short and my parents agreed that they had brought me up to respect other faiths and it was imperative I learn about other faiths. This, they said, was the Islamic way.
The foundation that this school gave me in a values-based system has always convinced me that faith schools embodying universal values can be of great benefit to pupils. For me, universal values are British values, which are also Islamic values, and which indeed exist in all major religions. Those who lack understanding, or who are mischievous, confuse faith values with cultural values. This confusion is where friction and mistrust come from.
Fast forward to 2002, and the start of the project to establish an Islamic voluntary-aided primary school in Slough. The community wanted it, I believed in it, and the government of the day had opened the door to schools based on a wider range of faiths, including Islam. That to me was a true recognition at last of freedom of religion in this country. I will not go into the ups and downs of the period 2002 to 2008, when IQRA School finally opened. What remained clear throughout was our desire to create an Islamic school in a multi-faith environment. Then we faced the issue of how to ensure effective governance at an Islamic school located in Slough, and found ourselves confronted with some severe challenges.
Why should this be so? Well, there were several issues relating to Islamic sectarianism, the stereotypical image of a Muslim school, and the difficulty of taking over an existing community school. If I had to do it again, I would never choose to take over a school in this way. I underestimated the hostility of the staff and parents at the school, even though the majority of pupils were Muslim, and those other issues came to the fore. Questions were asked as to whether it was a Wahhabi or Sunni or Shia school, and so on. Was it really a madrasa? Would all female teachers have to wear a veil? Would female pupils be allowed to talk to boys? Would female pupils have to have their faces covered? Would all teachers have to convert to Islam? These questions were often raised by a small group of parents who wanted an intolerant school, narrow-minded and discriminatory. Some staff, too, Muslim and non-Muslim, wanted to denigrate the school in the eyes of the community.
From this I learned some real lessons for surviving as a governor of a faith school. Let me share these with you now:
Have a clear vision and ethos. Don't sacrifice your stated principles for the sake of an easy ride. Ensure that you understand and value the whole community, but abide by those universal values you believe in
Don't fall into the trap of sectarianism. We made it clear that we were not a Sunni or Shia or Wahhabi or any other kind of school. We stood firm and, though, that was a difficult time, we are now reaping the rewards. Our stance was clear: "If you don't agree with our values and our rejection of any form of intolerance, our school is not right for you". We weathered Facebook attacks, defamatory leaflets, petitions and open confrontation. Why? Because we were promoting among staff and pupils those values that have recently been called British values – equality, tolerance, respect for other faiths, democracy and rule of law
Our school, IQRA, was ahead of the curve: recruiting the best teachers irrespective of faith, freedom to wear or not wear the hijab for Muslim female staff and pupils, teaching other faiths, tolerance of others, and the desire to teach our children to be good Muslims in multi-faith and multi-cultural Britain.
After those first two years of fire-fighting, the school has gone from strength to strength. It's been rated 'good' by Ofsted and outstanding by the local authority. We are very active in the community, and proud to have confident young Muslim children. Staff, pupils and the community know what IQRA stands for.
In November 2014, we took the bold step of holding a conference to discuss radicalisation, and how we as schools and community should address it. We were the first Muslim (and primary) school to hold an event of this kind. We knew there was a danger of a backlash, but leadership requires strength and conviction, and I am pleased to say it was a great success. For me, governors must meet head-on the danger of pupils being groomed by those who have extremist views. We must give pupils the tools to question those who would distort the truth and teach them to appreciate values we all believe in – in all schools.
There are many facets to governance: improving the quality of teaching, raising standards, improving behaviour, ensuring health and safety. Any governor will tell you this list goes on and on. Besides all of these, safeguarding is as vital as ever, with the added dimension now of protecting our children against extremism. It’s a long-term commitment that requires great effort and dedication along with strong leadership by the governing body.
I leave you with one comforting thought – make this commitment and you'll find that 95% of the Muslim community will be with you. As chair of governors for nearly seven years, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but I know the true value of strong leadership and governance. It will always pay dividends.
If you're a member of our service for school governors, you might like to read our article on ensuring that the school is promoting British values. Find out what your responsibilities are under the Equality Act 2010 here. If you're a school leader recruiting staff at the moment, then why not take a look at interview questions on promoting British values? (Log-in required).