Thousands of Muslim children aged five to 15 study the Koran in religious schools known as ma drassas. As with other educational facilities run by organised religions, such as Sunday schools, they are unregulated by the government. But in some locations child protection safeguards are in place and promoted by local agencies such as the police and social services.
Councils in northern England are leading the way in encouraging those who run madrassas, which are normally affiliated to a mosque but may operate informally, to develop sound child protection arrangements. One of these is Blackburn with Darwen Council, which has been working with the 30 madrassas within its boundaries for the past six years.
Stephen Sloss, director of social services, says recruitment procedures were “naive” before the intervention. But child protection training for madrassa teachers was developed and guidance on recruitment drawn up.
Initially, the work was viewed with suspicion. Sgt John Rigby, who is based in the minority unit at Blackburn police, says: “In the early years people feared that the police and social services were going to come in strong. But I say cultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness and nothing takes precedence over child protection.”
Along the way, others have come to share Rigby’s view and the appointment of a child and welfare officer within the Lancashire Council of Mosques, funded by the area child protection committee and the council, has helped.
Rigby says: “A child may disclose to their primary school teacher that they have been assaulted in a madrassa. There may be a lack of evidence or the parents may not want to pursue the matter but then the child protection officer can check with the madrassa that it has child protection procedures.”
Firasat Razak took on the part-time post in August 2004. Helping madrassas carry out Criminal Records Bureau checks on teachers – now a Department for Education and Skills requirement – is among his responsibilities.
“My advice is that they preferably employ teachers from this country,” he says. “There are twin advantages to this: their histories can be checked and if they were born in Britain or have lived in the UK for many years they will be familiar with British law and are less likely to use inappropriate punishments or discipline.”
It was Razak’s own experience as a madrassa teacher that prompted him to take the job. In his 10 years as a teacher and a student before that he had been worried about those who mistreated children.
Since he started the job he has dealt with only one or two incidents involving corporal punishment.
But how to deal with such behaviour by teachers? Razak says: “I would normally advise a madrassa that the teacher should be supervised for a short time. But if we are talking about someone hitting a child my advice would be to sack that person.”
Getting the message through to madrassas that certain types of discipline are wrong is at the heart of Razak’s job, as is letting parents and children know that he is there to help them.
He says: “Last year I had a case where some students had picked up one of my notices from a mosque and they left me an anonymous message saying one of their teachers was being verbally abusive. Confidentiality is important. I went to the madrassa and spoke to staff about child protection and I didn’t hear from those students again.”
Signs such as these show that Razak is reaching people and influencing the behaviour of those running madrassas. But working alone in a part-time post slows progress. So far he has helped madrassas in Blackburn with criminal checks but there are 50 other madrassas in the rest of Lancashire that he has yet to visit. But intervention of the government through inspection may not be the answer.
“Madrassas are self-funded so they would not appreciate somebody coming in and telling them what to do,” Razak says. “Each has its own way of developing education and unless the DfES was contributing money to a madrassa it would consider it had no say.”
Sloss adds: “For us there has been a positive side to not having any regulation. In the beginning people did not understand what went on in madrassas. It has taken time to build trust. If there was regulation it may have been quicker. I can see that in other areas in the country they may not have the same relationships or protocols. It suited us at the time to do things at own pace but if I stand back and look at the rest of the country I can see that there could be need for some guidance at the very least.”
The DfES is planning to release national guidance.
But despite the progress that Blackburn has made with the large madrassas it still needs to locate the unknown number of informal madrassas, which are often run from people’s homes.
Sloss says: “One of the benefits of the good relationships we have developed is that we will have help with that. Because we have not been forced together, organisations such as the Lancashire Council of Mosques will help us identify them.”
Fortunately, that relationship has not been damaged, despite being put at risk by the terrorist attacks in July 2005 and the subsequent negative publicity about madrassas in Pakistan.
Rigby says: “We do not want them thinking it is big brother all over again, using our access to find out whether there is radicalisation going on in madrassas. The community we are dealing with is not daft and if there is something untoward going on, they report it.”
Despite the time it has taken to make an impact on madrassas, Sloss is optimistic and anticipates that every area will take a closer look at all sorts of organised activities for children in the future.
Razak says it is important to bring Lancashire’s approach to other areas. “It’s essential that it expands to other areas. There is a need for this sort of work. Unfortunately, if you are working with children there will be some who abuse.”