After starting the day with prayers and songs in honor of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the students at the Madrasa Al Irsyad Al Islamiah here in Singapore turned to the secular. An all-girls chemistry class grappled with compounds and acids while other students focused on English, math and other subjects from the national curriculum.But what I found interesting was the fact that these successful reforms were in response to pressure from the government regarding primary education:
Teachers exhorted their students to ask questions. Some, true to the school’s embrace of new technology, gauged their students’ comprehension with individual polling devices.
The school’s 900 primary- and secondary-level students follow the national curriculum of the country’s public schools while also taking religious instruction. To accommodate both, the school day is three hours longer than at the mainstream schools.
Mohamed Muneer, 32, a chemistry teacher, said most of his former students had gone on to junior colleges or polytechnic schools, while some top students attended the National University of Singapore. “Many became administrators, some are teaching and some joined the civil service,” he said.
That balance resulted, like many things in this country, from pressure by the government. Singapore’s madrasas — historically the schools for ethnic Malays who make up about 14 percent of the country’s population — experienced a surge in popularity in the 1990s along with a renewed interest in Islam.
But that surge, coupled with the madrasas’ poor record in nonreligious subjects, high dropout rates and graduation of young people with few marketable job skills, worried the government. It responded by making primary education at public schools compulsory in 2003, allowing exceptions like the madrasas, provided they met basic standards by 2010. If they fail, they will have to stop educating primary school children.
“That forced the madrasas to shift their curriculum away from being purely religious schools,” said Mukhlis Abu Bakar, an expert on madrasas at the National Institute of Education, a teachers college.
Last year, the first time all six madrasas were required to sit for national exams at the primary level, two failed to meet the minimal standards, though they still had two more years to pass.
All of this is a good reminder that when we talk about science in the Muslim world, often we are only talking about interactions with a small well-educated fraction. A large population is either not educated at all or is going through curricula just beginning to incorporate the modern world.
Read the full article here. On a related note, there is a new book about to be released on madrassahs (yes - different spelling) in Pakistan (tip from Robin Lloyd): Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Madrassahs in Pakistan by Saleem Ali. More about the book here.