There is another world of education that exists outside the classrooms, and this rich tapestry of learning contexts attests most of all to the importance that people attach to education and to being educated. There persists a deeply held belief in the value of education as a form a bettering oneself – as opening doors to decent jobs and the financial stability that brings, as a means to ensure the inheritance of culture and to ensure children and young people walk along the right path in life. This has become increasingly clear to me – this shared optimism about the role of education as progression and betterment – the more that I have brought my teaching and learning out of the classroom and into different contexts.
At the moment, my teaching within school and my teaching outside of it are separate endeavours, driven by different imperatives and oriented towards different goals. Here are some thoughts on education in the community.
The Role of Religious and Cultural Learning
I do not claim that the communities in which I have been working and teaching are unique, but they are certainly notable. Children and young people access a much wider educational offer than in most areas; as well as the schooling they receive, the religiosity of the community leads students on to further learning. Most Muslim pupils dedicate themselves to Quranic study at the Madrasahs, and if not, many have private lessons at home; as well as offering additional English and Maths, as some do, these evening and weekend schools see pupils of all ages committing themselves to focused study.
Yesterday morning, after I had been teaching in a coffee shop, I was speaking to a guy who had been watching and was clearly curious about what we were up to. He first was curious whether I was giving Islamic lessons or school lessons – the teenager I was working with was dressed for mosque and my beard is fairly long, so it’s a reasonable assumption – and we then spoke more generally about education and learning.
Whilst I am not in any way religious, the passionate commitment to study and the reverence for scholarliness that characterise this particular part of the Islamic ethos are both fiercely laudable, irrespective of my views on what is taught.
Anyway, talking to this guy in the coffee shop, he spoke with wide eyes about the incredible achievement of pupils of any age who become hafiz (one who has memorised the Quran). He spoke of it as a miracle, and whilst I would disagree with that phrasing as a non-believer, I am no less awestruck by the commitment to learning that allows for such a feat to be accomplished.
Community Language Learning
Also on the weekends, other places of worship organise a huge range of additional learning opportunities. The different churches of many different cultural origins run Sunday schools, and as I head out to get my morning coffee, the streets are streaming with kids and young people in their Sunday best heading into church classes. As well as religious teaching, these same sessions often play a valuable role in teaching and sharing community cultures and languages that are overlooked in the children’s schools. Parents are keen for their children not to lose connection with their native languages, and so many attend Gujarati, Bengali and Urdu classes too, so they can speak, read and write.
On this point, there is thus a staggering rate of bilingualism here, with many pupils actually able to communicate in three or more languages, yet this is not deemed noteworthy; quite transparently, I feel this is a reflection of the privileging of European languages above all others. If you had a pupil who was fluent in English, French, Danish and Dutch they’d be getting scholarships, but pupils who can speak English, Urdu, Gujarati and Arabic are, in many schools here, the norm.
Supplementary schools can be found everywhere too, existing to provide learning that will support in-school learning, as well as promoting and retaining cultural and linguistic traditions. Islamic Circle Supplementary School is an example of this, as is I Am School of Excellence, which is a school for teaching African and Caribbean culture and tradition.
There is a tuition boom, for better or worse. On the one hand, when parental aspiration is so high and parents are willing to put money into their children’s learning, this is surely their right. Despite this being one of the most financially stifled communities in East London, presently and historically, the value accorded to education is so high that it is prioritised above so much else. Weekends will be given up. There are Kumon centres, tuition centres and individual tutors working everywhere, offering increasingly affordable rates for tuition of an untested quality. Much of this tuition is school-focused, on the teaching of Maths and English. Parents and students here (and very often it is the students themselves seeking these opportunities for additional support, as they get older) make sacrifices that many others simply would not make. One pupil I have been teaching meets me for an hour at 9am every Saturday before he goes on to weekend classes at the mosque for a further two and a half hours.
Schools, recognising the impact that one-to-one instruction between a qualified teacher and a pupil can have, increasingly utilise tuition as well. In my last school, teachers had the option of working as a tutor with target pupils from their classes (targeted via pupil premium data) to enhance and support their learning. I did this on Saturday mornings in school as did many of my colleagues; this was offered to parents and families for free, and was a versatile and effective use of our pupil premium allocation.
Alongside these, there are well-attended Scouts Brigades, Brownies, Police Cadets, Army Cadets and Air Cadets. There are youth centres and here, I must confess, my experience is limited so I cannot say anything about them and the work they do.
All of the above communicates something important about this community.
For one thing, it feels that it needs to do more than what is presently offered solely through the schools in order to guarantee the best opportunities for pupils, whilst recognising that success within school is the most assured way to guarantee opportunity for pupils. Historically, schools here have not done well – problems that affected inner-city London schools through the 70s, 80s and 90s affected Newham. Whilst there has been a huge and well-documented improvement in the schools’ attainment, when it comes to linguistic, cultural and religious learning, the needs of the community are not being met by the schools.
Schools could argue that it is not their role to do so, or certainly not to the level that can be offered by organic community organisations that focus themselves on, say, Quranic study, or fluency in Bengali, or African and Caribbean culture. Personally, I think schools could do more to reflect the communities that they serve, both sensitively within the curriculum, but also through additional provision of the kinds of community learning that children and parents seek elsewhere. In a school where a majority of pupils speak Bengali, where better to host supplementary lessons in Bengali?
Secondly, when I think of the above, I cannot help but raise an eyebrow at the idea that London schools – I am thinking primarily here of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Redbridge, since this is where my experience lies – have a transformative effect. Given the amount of additional input that pupils experience – from imams, religious leaders, community educators, youth workers, tutors and the like – it is worth exploring the impact that this has.
We recognise the long-running link between poverty and educational attainment, but to me, I see signs that this is slackening. Not everywhere. Not at all. But in the specific example of communities like Newham, the link is being broken. LKMCo’s report into Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility shows the phenomenal academic gains being made by Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils, who are disproportionately over-represented in the poorest communities of the UK.
This hints, at the very least, at the role of aspiration, commitment and culture in weakening the link between poverty and attainment; controversially, I suggest that whilst all parents want the best for their pupils, not all parents are committed equally doggedly to translating this ‘desire’ into action. It requires sacrifice of time and money, to a level that is unfair, yet for those parents and pupils making such sacrifices, they are beginning to see the fruits of their labour.
Finally, this rich tapestry is one that I am enjoying being a part of. I am a trustee of the Sheba Project, an organisation for community resilience, lifelong learning, women’s empowerment and inter-generational projects. Also with @shebaasha and with a group of local residents, we are in the process of building a Community Garden, which will be a space for local activity and adult learning. For the last year, I have been running an adult education class with Muslim women, learning about citizenship, community work, empowerment and activism. And I have been teaching secondary pupils in the local coffeeshops and restaurants on the weekends.
I have another project in the pipeline – a rather large one – but I’ll be sharing that one at a later date.
Image Source (and interesting article) – https://www.thetrumpet.com/12152-the-camelback-library