BRITISH schools are to be twinned with madrasahs in Pakistan to show pupils there how much they have in common with children in the West and to combat extreme Islamist ideology.
The British Council is to put £6m into linking British schools with classrooms in countries where children may be at risk of being groomed by Muslim extremists. The programme will operate in Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia and Pakistan, including the largely lawless North West Frontier Province, regarded as a stronghold for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Last week British teachers met groups from Pakistan to discuss establishing the first collaborative projects this spring. A madrasah in Peshawar and one in the Swabi district are among those preparing to take part in the programme, which will involve 220,000 pupils in Britain, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan alone.
The role of madrasahs in fostering extremism came under scrutiny after it emerged that one of the suicide bombers behind the explosions in London on July 7, 2005, had attended a religious school in Pakistan. Shehzad Tanweer spent two months at a madrasah in Lahore in 2004.
Most religious schools in Pakistan are moderate, serving poor rural families, but others have a reputation for preparing young men for jihad, or holy war. Pakistan has an estimated 14,000 madrasahs, compared with only 137 at the time of partition from India in 1947.
The British Council, which is funded by the Foreign Office to promote British culture and education abroad, aims to link all schools in Britain with a school overseas by 2012. The UK's 30,000 schools will receive grants to conduct community projects with their "twins".
Although the plan is designed to broaden British children's understanding of poorer cultures, it also aims to improve the language skills of children in the Islamic colleges and to challenge outdated perceptions of Britain.
Schools in London, Bradford, Nottingham and Birmingham, where there are large Muslim populations, are expected to be the first to take part. They will be encouraged to exchange e-mails and letters with the twinned schools and to conduct teacher-and-pupil exchanges.
"These projects have a tremendous effect on how young people see the modern world," said Martin Davidson, the chief executive of the British Council. "They are a direct way of revealing what people and cultures in other countries are really like. While they discover plenty of differences they also come to understand that young people share many characteristics."
Target areas for the twinning are not only the Indian subcontinent but also sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The British Council already has projects in Pakistan and has opened a centre in North West Frontier Province to provide madrasahs with English-language teaching materials and curriculum support to help stop them falling under the sway of extremists.
In 2001, after Al-Qaeda's attack on the twin towers in New York, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan promised to reform the madrasahs and to make it compulsory for them to register with the authorities. He also promised to take steps to make them broaden their curriculum to include subjects other than the study of the Koran.
Source: Times Online (English)