Islamophobia continues to be an under-researched and oft-ignored issue in public life. As with everything in public policy, research and decision-making, where we see the most acute impact of this is often in schools.
School-based solutions are often wrongly touted as the answer to all of our problems. However, it is hard to ignore the correlation (and negative cumulative impact) between anti-Muslim sentiment, the mental health of young Muslims, and the mental health epidemic in schools more generally.
This is especially true due to the fact that one in 12 children in British schools is of Muslim background. With the latest census data showing a growth of people identifying as Muslim in the UK – a religion which possesses the youngest age profile and for which transmission of faith and values is the highest among all faiths in the UK – it is clear that there is a increasing number of Muslim children and young people with a strong sense of religious identity and holding faith-driven values in British schools. While this is often used as a tool to whip up moral panic and existential fear, it is actually cause for celebration, hope and of course opportunity.
As with all school-related anxieties, what’s often framed as the ‘Muslim problem’ in this context actually speaks of something greater regarding our social values and the future direction of our country. This in fact underscores the latent and unexplored potential of young Muslims in schools. The demographic layout of Muslims in inner-city conurbations has natural implications on workforce profile, pointing to the fact that Muslims are integral to our social and economic prosperity.
In a climate where schools are increasingly acknowledging the benefits of whole-child approaches and whole-school strategies, it would be erroneous to ignore the contextual differences present in Muslim pupils’ lives and how this wealth of untapped knowledge and understanding presents such enormous potential for schools in both learning, behaviour and wellbeing.
Symptomatic of the pervasiveness of Islamophobia, many may frame this as preferential, unnecessary or ‘pandering’ when the opposite is true. Not be cognisant of cultural factors and faith-sensitivity does a disservice to children, their families, schools and wider communities. In short, the ‘Muslim Problem’ is in fact a Muslim opportunity with wide-reaching and truly exciting benefits, and schools are the first port of call in doing justice to this burgeoning potential.
Unconscious bias means many schools will often see Muslim families’ choices as less legitimate and worthy of attention, a trend which can only be exacerbated by the lack of diversity in teaching itself. This does nothing to develop the trust and understanding between school, home and child that we know is so integral to the prosperity of all.
Understanding how faith acts as a lever, motivator and source of inspiration to these children and young people can only positively contribute to schools’ aims of improving life chances. Creating meaningful impact must start with demonstrating to young people that we value and acknowledge their whole selves.
To that end, Muslim Mind Collaborative have set out to help schools understand British Muslim life, Islam and the lived experience of their pupils in a culturally-astute way, to the betterment of their mental well-being. Our research found that over 90 per cent of school staff felt ill-equipped to support Muslim pupils’ mental health, echoing results from a study undertaken by the Centre for Mental Health this year which found that 9 out of 10 teachers wanted anti-racism training.
Meanwhile, 95 per cent of the Muslim primary-aged pupils we surveyed said they would like their teachers and friends to know more about Islam and the practices that define their lives and identities. Ultimately, cultivating this sense of belonging for Muslim children is what will grant them a sense of ownership of their education, a stake in their educational environment and better allow them to develop a sense of agency and confidence in their life path.
Our new report, launching tomorrow, challenges schools and their leaders to see the potential in Muslim communities and to find the courage to activate it. Our toolkit backs that up with the support they need to put their new thinking into practice.
True inclusivity demands it, and the mental health crisis is proof that it is urgent.