Bridging the gap between cultures can be difficult. Add sensitive issues such as child protection, language barriers and scepticism about the motivation for building the bridge and you catch a glimpse of the enormous task faced by the Madressah Project, winner of Community Care’s child protection award 2003.
Kirklees, in West Yorkshire, has more than 50 madressahs (Islamic schools), which together provide a daily Islamic education to more than 10,000 children, usually between 4.30pm and 7.30pm. In summer 2001, a consensus emerged within Kirklees social services that the madressahs needed to be supported. It had some concerns about the alleged physical punishment of children attending after receiving a few referrals. The need to engage with the schools, raise awareness and inform on the issue of child protection was clear.
Despite their commitment to "seize the moment", social services "explored how best to engage with madressahs," says project development officer Shakeel Hafez. "Initially, they thought that they could draw up some guidelines and send them out. Then they realised that the way to engage and to get goodwill of the community was to have someone with experience of this sector."
So, a year later, the Madressah Project was founded, with Hafez operating as the go-between for the Muslim community and social services. With a background in child protection and, crucially, experience of teaching in madressahs, Hafez has been critical to opening a dialogue on child protection. He says: "We have to appreciate that because of global politics there are some reservations on the part of the madressah administrators about the motivations of the local authority. My involvement and intervention helps to reassure them."
In August 2003, after a 12-month community-wide consultation, which brought together madressah teachers and child protection and child welfare practitioners, the project published a glossy 52-page guide called Safe Children, Sound Learning. "This is intended to provide practical support to madressah administrators on child protection, behaviour management and health and safety," says Hafez.
He adds: "A number of madressahs are now using this document to examine and look at their policies and protocols. We’ve given the community something they can work with." As a direct result of the project, many madressahs now have their own child protection policies.
Hafez is clear about his role in the project’s success. He says: "The key thing is that I’m discussing child protection and child welfare issues in community languages and in the manner that is acceptable to them without compromising the ingredients."
The project has also focused its attention on encouraging positive parenting. It produced a leaflet that discusses how positive parenting encourages better behaviour and why smacking is harmful to children. The leaflet is being promoted by the National Family and Parenting Institute.
"The benefits the project has brought to social services and people working in child protection are extremely valuable. It has enhanced our understanding of madressahs so that if there is an issue we can address it much more effectively," says Paul Hodgkinson, principal officer in the child protection and review unit.
The Madressah Project was "happy and exhilarated" to be the winner of the child protection category. Hafez says: "Winning the award is fantastic. For the Madressah Project it is recognition both for the good work we are doing and for the innovative manner in which the project has been put together by Kirklees social services and community education." He hopes that winning this award might show the potential for this scheme to be extended nationally.
The £5,000 prize money will fund a training programme for madressah teachers. Hafez says: "Many madressah teachers cannot communicate in English; some have recently arrived in the UK and often they are not acquainted with child protection law and practice. The training will ensure that the message reaches teachers directly and give them an opportunity to input their ideas into what makes good practice."