Muslim students in UK brace fasting and exams during ‘longest Ramadan’
Ramadan this year falls between June 6 and July 5, overlapping with the board exams season
Muslim students in the UK are fasting while taking exams during the longest Ramadan in 33 years.
As the holy month is set by a lunar calendar, its date changes by 11 days every year. This year, it falls between June 6 and July 5, overlapping with the traditional exam season in May and June.
Ramadan will continue to fall during peak periods in the exam season for the next two years, as it is forecast to begin on May 27 in 2017 and May 16 in 2018.
“Exams in Ramadan were something that inevitably would happen, given the way the month moves backward each year,” Aishah Muhammad, a London-based Muslim blogger and medical doctor, told Al Arabiya English.
“It’s a new challenge many have never faced before. The last time Ramadan fell during the summer, there were less Muslims in the UK and not many pursuing further education.”
Clashes over schedule
There were efforts by board exam officials earlier in the year to accommodate Muslim students.
However, the heads of England’s two most powerful education bodies, the exam regulator Ofqual and the schools regulator Ofsted, have clashed over reshaping the summer exam timetable.
Ofqual’s chief executive Glenys Stacey sent a public letter to her Ofsted counterpart Sir Michael Wilshaw at the beginning of the year, following the latter’s warning that any changes to the GCSE and A-level timetable could lead to other religious groups “piling in.”
Wilshaw told London radio station LBC: “Other groups might say we’ve got a festival here, a holy day there, we want you to change. Schools would find it very difficult to manage that.”
Naka Alkhzraji, Arab media manager at London-based charity and research group Integrity, told Al Arabiya English: “We’re not the first religious group to ask for accommodation.
“It isn’t wrong to shift the exams… but a fair and just policy that has been welcomed and appreciated by Muslims.”
Muhammad, who has just received her medical qualifications, said fasting while taking exams may not necessarily be a challenge.
“I honestly believe with careful planning, attention to food consumption and a strong hold on faith that exams are doable in Ramadan,” she said.
Unlike many other Muslim students, her medical school exams were later in the year than many schools and colleges, so she has had two years' worth of exams fall during Ramadan.
She says it was never as hard as she had imagined: “The biggest challenge was balancing time between studying and performing the acts of worship I wanted to do.
“I was unrealistic to begin within that I couldn’t do all the things family and friends were doing, because I had to give a large portion of my time to studying.”
Advice published in April by the Associations of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said teachers should tell children that extra devotion is “voluntary” whereas “exams are obligatory,” and advised not to stay up “all night praying” to avoid being too tired.
The advice angered Muslim leaders, with Dr Sheik Howjat Ramzy, director of Iqra Institute in Oxford, telling the Daily Telegraph: “It’s not up to the schools to decide the advice they give around Ramadan, and I find some of it very aggressive because you cannot break the child’s fast except in special situations. If you offer aggressive advice, then the parents will be very aggressive towards you.”
It’s not up to the schools to decide the advice they give around Ramadan, and I find some of it very aggressive because you cannot break the child’s fast except in special situations. If you offer aggressive advice, then the parents will be very aggressive towards you.Sheik Howjat Ramzy, director of Iqra Institute in Oxford
However, as the debate goes on and British Muslim students take the last of the exams while fasting, some say Muslim organizations have their work cut out for them in coming years.
“Muslim organizations should mount more pressure to see the schedule moved or changed to avoid the clash,” said Alkhzraji.
“Head teachers have voiced concerns about the clash of Ramadan and exams, believing it may have a negative effect on exam performance. [Based on the last census], one in 12 pupils will be fasting and taking exams [in the coming years].”