The first Islamic Education Conference was held at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre on February 20th and 21st. Organised by Griffith University in conjunction with Al Siraat College, the conference brought overseas experts, researchers, board members and lead teachers from around Australia and NZ to discuss the issues facing Muslim schools in Australia.
Starting off with the most controversial issues, Ayda Succarie presented her research on the difficulties facing many of our Muslim schools, where founders and boards did not understand their role as stewards, but saw themselves as owners of the schools in their care. Dr. Jan Ali added in his presentation a neo-liberal ideology which leads to a focus on high marks as opposed to Islamic content in order to deliver high socio-economic status rather than Islamic character and knowledge. This led to the importance of developing a realistic and appropriate vision for schools that could be meaningfully applied by all members of the school community.
The role and importance of vision was covered by other speakers, including Dr. Nadeem Memon from the Razi Foundation, who spoke about the characteristics of different schools, their teaching methods and styles. Having a diversity of different visions on method, style and vision for schools allows parents to find a school that matches the parents own vision for the ideal school. The issue of vision was carried by Dylan Chown in developing a worldview for the Islamic school that he is leading. Anne MacDonald from the Nazareth School demonstrated how a prayer developed by the staff inspired the vision of the school and the practice of the students.
Dylan Chown and Troy Meston spoke about the indigenous community and how they should be treated and their integration of their understandings of country with the Islamic vision of Kalipha. Dr. Freda Shamma spoke alarmingly of the lack of ethical content in kids reading material. Highlighting the Western liberal worldview as opposed to the Muslim worldview she tabled the hidden references in Western juvenile literature which has little family involvement, independent children, challenging parental control, aggression, and the focus on individual desire as well as romance. Many Muslim schools do not have any oversight of the reading material in their libraries or ability to include meaningful literature that encourages the ethics and priorities of Islam.
The greatest challenge affecting Muslim schools however lies in the delivery of meaningful knowledge in Arabic and Islam. Research indicates that these are the lessons that are the least attractive to students due to their inappropriate format, poor teaching methods and shortage of skilled teachers. Various approaches were discussed to trying to address this global problem which ultimately requires greater specialisation, resources and training for teachers.
Dr. Omaira Alam from the Razi Foundation spoke about the importance of Mercy in our schools, from the Dignified Way of discipline, to the engagement with the community at large through visits to aged care homes and community services.
After more than 80 in depth interviews with staff and former students of Islamic schools, Dr Peter Jones had ample evidence that there was no difference in the values and ethics of Islam and Australian society. However, it was clear that Islamic schools had a long way to go before realising their own set of values with significant issues in the presentation of Islam to students, its inclusion in the wider curriculum, and the relevancy of how it is taught.
Muslim schools now have a strong presence in Australia through their significant populations and their overall number in most states. While espousing high aspirations, there is much real work to do in terms of governance, staff training and quality delivery of the key subjects that inform the Islamic world view – Arabic, Quran and Islamic Studies. Participants pledged that the research should continue, the global links should be strengthened and initiatives should be evaluated in time for the next annual Australian Islamic Education Conference.