Yes we should learn English, but so should everyone

Britain’s first ever Muslim woman head teacher, says that Prime Minister David Cameron has ‘shocked and saddened’ her with his controversial claims.

Award winning Bushra Nasir, CBE, who came to England from Pakistan when she was eight in 1960, has spoken out following the announcement of the Government’s latest scheme to invest £20 million funding into English classes, targeted at ethnic minority women.

Mrs Nasir, named Head Teacher of the Year in 2012, said: “I have no problem with what David Cameron says about the need for people to learn English, but am angry at three things he has linked his claims with.

Bushra Nasir was the first ever female Muslim head teacher of a state school in the UK
Bushra Nasir was the first ever female Muslim head teacher of a state school in the UK

“The links he made to radicalisation, deportation and the fact he has highlighted only one small group of people – Muslim women.”

During Mr Cameron’s controversial visit to Leeds last week, he said that Muslim women were traditionally submissive.

He singled out their way of life, and then suggested that anyone who did not take their English lessons could be subject to deportation. He also warned that not speaking English adequately could make people “more susceptible” to the recruitment messages of groups like Daesh.

Role model Mrs Nasir, now 63, who is on the Muslim Women Power List, turned around a failing school of Plashet in East Ham, London and impressed Ofsted so much that it was listed as one of the 12 most outstanding schools in Britain, in a national report ‘Excelling Against the Odds.’

She was one of Tony Blair’s special Muslim advisors following the 7/7 London bombings, and was approached by the Government for her expertise in education and cohesion.

Now retired, but still active in education, the busy grandmother has told Asian Sunday that she wants to send out a message to women everywhere: to embrace your home language and learn all you can.

Mrs Nasir says she was shocked and saddened to hear the Prime Minster’s claims and the fact that he singled out Muslim women in particular.

She said: “I think there is certainly a need for women from all backgrounds to learn English. When I was on maternity leave in the 1980s, I helped with home teaching for women, and yes there is a need. It can improve life for the better.

“People do need to learn English but I am angry at the links David Cameron made to radicalisation, deportation and how he targeted Muslim women.

“What about all the others who cannot speak English? There are Hindus, Sikhs, Eastern Europeans, plus many more. He should not have singled out one group – that is wrong.

“The sadness I feel is because he has picked on the one group which seems to be under particular attack in the media at the moment, for all kinds of reasons.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and the impact of that has been quite negative.”

She said after hearing the Prime Minister’s announcement about funding for English lessons, she had welcomed publicity surrounding a simple letter sent by an eight-year-old girl Sadiya Rahman, who was terrified that she and her younger brother would lose their mum, after hearing her parents discuss the new enforced law on immigrants.

David Cameron had also hinted at the ‘learn or leave’ clause which suggests that a foreign spouse who fails to learn a certain level of English after a specified time limit may face deportation. This test could be in addition to the existing English language requirements and Life in the UK test for non-EU nationals, who come to the UK to join their British partners.

David Cameron visited Leeds last week where he made the controversial comments
David Cameron visited Leeds last week where he made the controversial comments

Mrs Nasir added: “I came from a village near Lahore in Pakistan when I was eight, only speaking Urdu. Soon I learned English, then went on to learn French and Latin, which helped me with other languages. I would say to young Muslim or Asian women, and all women who speak English as a second language to embrace your first language and learn every language you can along the way.”

“When I was head I was active in promoting language, and a home language is a great asset. There were 20 languages on the National Curriculum when I taught and when children are fluent in more than one language, it presents opportunities,” she said.

It is claimed that the new English language classes and tests are aimed at helping women like the 38,000 Muslim females who said in the last census that they don’t speak English at all, and the 190,000 who said they speak it badly.

In the 2011 census, 846,000 UK women identified as Muslim, meaning the 38,000 who said they spoke no English represent just 4.5 per cent of the total. In reality, more than 95 per cent of British Muslim women do speak English.

Bushra recalled how over 37 years in education, since she started as a teacher in 1975 before retiring in 2012, how times had changed, particularly for Muslim women.

Mrs Nasir, who is former President of the Muslim Teachers Association, said: “I have thoroughly enjoyed working in education; in fact I still am, even in retirement, through support work in five schools.”

She shrugs off any praise when I mention that she is on the inaugural Muslim Women Power List of 2009 and ask what advice she would give to women: “I am very blessed,” she says. “It is important to be busy and active and embrace having more than one language.

“My success can be attributed to the many positive role models who developed my self-confidence, self-belief and discipline. I hope that I have been a positive role model, helped to change young peoples’ lives, change expectations and counter stereotypes, thus enriching our profession.”

Rizwana Mahmood, is head teacher at Carlton Junior and Infant School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, and echoed Bushra Nasir’s words.

Originally from Bradford, she was a finalist in the recent Head Teacher of the Year by the National Centre for Diversity and noted by OFSTED 2015 as ‘inspirational’ after just two years in the job, transforming her school. Equality and inclusion are absolutely central to the school’s ethos.

Rizwana Mahmood, Head of Carlton J&I School, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire
Rizwana Mahmood, Head of Carlton J&I School, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire

She said: “Firstly, there isn’t a link between religion and language although I welcome his funding proposal to improve language, as it is much needed certainly for the type of communities most inner city schools serve – I feel for any individual migrating to any part of the world away from their native land, it is imperative that they make the effort to learn the language of the country they migrate into.

“It is more about broadening horizons as well as being able to access important information. Furthermore, learning the English language will enable them to actively participate in British life.

She said that Mr Cameron should think about widening his proposal to other communities.

“Those who have gone to Syria from our localities are generally English speaking, educated people. I believe that some of these individuals have gaps in their lives and have slipped through the net. These people and the organisations are providing them with a sense of belonging. More work needs to be done in partnership with parents and supplementary agencies and we need to look closely at character traits associated with radicalisation.”