It looks like any other school. A campus divided into blocks, a playground, classrooms with desks and chairs, and students in uniforms – boys in shirts and shorts, girls in shirts and skirts. But this is no regular school. It’s a an English-medium, co-educational madrasa.
The Paninala English Medium Government High Madrasah, a government-run madrasa in Paninala, a town with 40 per cent Muslim population in Nadia district of West Bengal, is the state’s first English-medium madrasa. Here, the medium of instruction is English, the board of education is CBSE, and the second language taught is Bengali. Since it’s a madrasa, learning Arabic and reciting the Quran is compulsory.
The “modern madrasa”, spread over five acres of land, launched its first academic session last week. An initiative of the Mamata Banerjee government, the madrasa bears TMC’s stamp – its building is painted blue and white. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, wants to promote such madrasas, with his Rs 100 crore allocation to the “madarsa modernisation” programme in the Budget.
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Parents of Muslim children seem to be warming up to the idea of a modern madrasa. Rabiul Haque, who runs a grocery store, says he “likes” seeing his son Araful Haque, a Class I student, “carrying English, Bengali and mathematics books”. “In most madrasas, education revolves around learning to recite the Quran and rest of the education is imparted in Bengali.”
Ibrahim Nabi SK, a farmer, brings his two sons from Sonpukur, 30 km away, everyday to the school. “My sons used to go to a private English-medium school in Sonpukur where the standard of teaching was not up to the mark. This state initiative is promising and my kids will learn better. I don’t mind travelling the distance every day,” he says.
The school has four blocks, each with a four-storeyed building, and can accommodate students up to Class XII. Currently, the school is operational till Class I (including UKG), and has five teachers, and 198 students. Arup Kumar Das, a former government school headmaster and now the teacher-in-charge of the madrasa, says that in the next academic year, the school would be upgraded to Class V and later, gradually to Class XII.
Despite being a madrasa, 15 per cent of its students are Hindu. Compulsory teaching of Arabic or the Quran appears to be no hindrance for the Hindu students. Jeet Biswas, a student of Class I, enjoys learning the Arabic alphabet. “He is picking it up very fast,” says Abul Quasem, the Arabic teacher.
Deepali Biswas, Jeet’s mother, was initially sceptical though. “I always thought madrasas were meant only for Muslims and did not want Jeet to study here. But later, when I saw this school, it appeared better than the private school Jeet was going to. No other government school in Nadia has such a huge structure and a playground. The teachers here speak in English with the kids unlike the teachers who speak Bengali at private English-medium schools. Also, many told me that Arabic is only a language and my son would benefit from learning an additional language,” she says.
Seema Biswas was also in two minds about admitting her daughter Disha Biswas to the school. “I was worried about her learning Arabic. But my husband, mother-in-law and sister-in-law convinced me that Arabic, like English, is foreign language and there’s no harm in learning it. Now, I am glad she is here,” she says. School authorities say that Hindu parents have no problem with their children learning the Quran either.
Of the five teachers, one, Mamon Halsana, is Hindu. A former teacher on probation at a government school, she learned about the madrasa through an advertisement. “They said they wanted a teacher with B.Ed and an English-medium background. I applied and got through,” she says.
Most students come from backgrounds where English is not spoken, but at the madrasa, teachers are instructed to speak to the children only in English. “There are initial hiccups in conversations, but it is good that they have started early and we will definitely get over the problems,” says Halsana.
Shahidul Islam, secretary, minority department ,says that 11 such madrasas are planned across the state. PB Salim, district magistrate, Nadia described it as the much-needed modernisation of madrasas.