St Matthew's school in Blackburn shows that a multi-faith approach can pay dividends

At the Church of England primary school, all but a handful of the pupils are from Muslim backgrounds. Chris Evans pays a visit

A little boy, "Jesus", is walking carefully in his plimsolls across a sea of tables to save his diminutive disciples, who are grouped together in the prayer corner and unable to suppress their giggles at the re-enactment of the Biblical miracle. This is the surprising, if entertaining, religious scene I am met with when I stick my head around the corner of a classroom at St Matthew's Primary in Blackburn.

But the surprise is not so much the sight of a child walking on makeshift water. St Matthew's is, after all, a Church of England school, where the walls are adorned with crosses and religious drawings, and which regularly organises Christian activities, readings, prayers and songs. No, the surprise is that almost every child in the class is Muslim.

In fact, 97 per cent of the 265 pupils schooled in the 1980s-style building that is perched on a hill overlooking the Lancastrian city are from Muslim families. The head teacher, Julian Rogers, believes that the word of God should be spoken and Christian values and morals upheld at the school no matter what background the children are from. Indeed, during assemblies, his biblical stories hold his audience – of excited, intrigued and sometimes confused-looking pupils – captive.

Most are second- or third-generation British Asians, whose parents/grandparents emigrated here from India and Pakistan from the 1960s onwards. But there are also children with families from countries such as Iran, Palestine, Turkey and Nigeria. So: a melting pot of cultures, languages and identities. Some have only just arrived with their families from the turmoil of their home country, and have found being taught about Christianity in English somewhat unexpected.

But the teachers and assistants at the school, along with the adjoining Brunel nursery, work hard to improve the children's English and help them adjust to the unfamiliar surroundings and teachings. So much so that the Muslim parents accept the importance of the underlying Christian ethos, and St Matthew's achieved a “Good” rating in its latest Ofsted report.

“The fact that it is a church school is fine with us, ” says Maryam Pathan, who was born in India but has lived in England for 10 years and whose daughter is in the reception class. “We think it's great that they are learning about other religions.”

Pupils at St Matthew's school reading in class (Guzelian) Pupils at St Matthew's school reading in class (Guzelian)
Mr Rogers says that the children are more receptive to the Christian teachings because they already come from a background of belief. “This is an advantage over those kids who have no faith background whatsoever, who don't necessarily appreciate spiritual themes,” he says

But it hasn't all been plain sailing, and some changes at the school have been a cause for discussion among some of the white parents. “In the past 15 years or so, there have been a load more Muslim kids arriving at St Matthew's,” notes one parent.

“When my older kids were at the school, there were more white Christian children. It has been a dramatic change.”

Another mother says that a couple of years ago her son was allegedly the victim of abuse from some Muslim children who called him “white honky” and other such names. But, she added, that this was swiftly dealt with by the school, which provides a private counselling service for parents and children with any issues.

Jan West has two white grandchildren at the school, and admits she was surprised at the high number of Asian children. But she says, “We've not had any problems, and the extra care and attention they give my grandson, who has behavioural problems, is excellent. [My grand-daughter] is even picking up words in other languages like Urdu.”

Overall, the school has had great success in maintaining religious and social harmony among the pupils, but there are unlikely to be any Muslim converts to Christianity any time soon. As one Muslim mother, Amina Patel, points out: “It's good that our kids learn about Christianity, but it's not going to change their religious faith or the way we teach them at home.”

This is illustrated by the fact that the Muslim children at St Matthew's also attend local Islamic schools from 4.30pm to 7pm every day, with a short break at home in between for tea and homework. A large number of them go to the Islamic Educational Society for their additional schooling. This consists of an impressive-looking mosque called Masjide Noorul Islam (place of worship) and the Madressa Noorul Islam in a basic brick building opposite where the children sit in classrooms to learn about Islam.

The school's principal, Mufti Ashraf (“Ash”) Sidat, is rightly proud of the mosque, which he says was built with £2m of voluntary contributions from the local community. and not, he jokes, from “George Osborne, Saddam Hussein or Bin Laden”.

Pupils wait outside the gates at St Matthew's school in Blackburn (Guzelian) Pupils wait outside the gates at St Matthew's school in Blackburn (Guzelian)
There's no call to prayer because this is forbidden by the local council, but, from 4pm onwards, the Muslim families – boys dressed in their jubbas (tunics) and girls with their hijabs (scarves) wrapped around their heads, all with varying coloured jackets thrown over the top and Spider-Man or princess bags on their backs – emerge from their houses, creating quite a sight on the streets.

As they enter their second school for the day, they must perform the ablution, or cleansing of the body, using the taps provided. Then they are split off into separate classrooms along a corridor to learn about the Islamic religion. There are no tables and chairs; the children sit and pray on cushions, surrounded by sparse walls.

“Most of these kids were born in Britain and have adapted to the culture here, but it is important they learn about and identify with the religious beliefs of their forefathers,” says Ash, who is friendly and open, but exudes an air of authority. As the children pass by, there is an obvious deference and respect shown towards him.

The hall is silent save for the sound of hundreds of little voices quietly murmuring the words of the Koran. The recitation is a vital part of their education, along with learning about Islamic law, history, manners, etiquette, citizenship, languages and spiritual training.

In keeping with the times, there is a greater crossover of ideas, learning and appreciation between the faiths in the city. Ash helped create an Interfaith Forum in which local leaders from the different religions can meet to discuss their practices.

Church school children also come to the Islamic School to learn about the mosque. “Christianity and Islam are actually very similar religions,” Ash tells me. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph are just pronounced differently. The only clear difference is the Trinity.”

Mufti Ashraf Sidat, with his beard and robes, and Julian Rogers, in his sharp, modern suit, are strikingly different characters in appearance and personality, but they preach the same message: of the need for racial and religious tolerance, and understanding.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Reach Volunteering: Would you like to volunteer your expertise as Chair of Governors for Livability?

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Ashdown Group: Payroll Administrator - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + substantial benefits: Ashdown Group: Finance Admin...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada