Hawzah News Agency - (London - UK) - Bushra Nasir started her education learning on the floor of a school in Pakistan. Fifty years on, she has come out of retirement to lead a multi-academy trust
When Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Muslim Teachers’ Association, she paid tribute to “real trailblazers”.
High on her list of people to laud was Bushra Nasir, the UK’s first female Muslim secondary school leader.
It has been a long journey for Nasir, who started her education learning on the floor of a school in Pakistan, has been made a CBE for services to education, and was named Tes headteacher of the year.
Now, seven years after retiring from headship, she finds herself in a bigger role than ever: leading an academy trust that serves disadvantaged children in east London.
'I want Muslims to have a positive image'
It is now more than a quarter of a century since Nasir became the first Muslim woman to lead a secondary school in the UK.
But when she was appointed to the role at Plashet School for Girls, in Newham, east London, in 1993, she did not at first know that she had made history. That realisation came only two months later when she was contacted by a newspaper.
“It did have a lot of significance for me,” she says. “I felt I was not just doing the job for myself, but for a lot of other people as well. I always had this belief that I want Muslims to have a positive image and a positive input into British society.
“I thought: ‘You are in this role now and the judgements on you are going to be harsher than for a normal headteacher. So you can’t do it just good enough. You have got to do it that much better.’”
It is an attitude she says has stayed with her ever since, and she strives to show “you can be an Asian professional female, and you can be very successful”.
One very deliberate decision has been to dress in the shalwar kameez – a combination of trousers, dress and scarf that is traditional in Pakistan.
“I have always dressed like that as a teacher, particularly more so as a headteacher, because I think I’m sending out to young people [a message that] your identity is very, very important, and to be very proud of that identity.”
'We said we need schools to try to be inclusive'
Over the years, Nasir has been familiar with finding ways to reconciling sometimes difficult tensions between faith and schooling.
At Plashet, she modified the PE kit to accommodate the concerns of Muslim girls. Around that time, a dispute between a Muslim teenager and a school in Luton over Islamic dress reached the High Court in 2004 and Nasir sat on a NUT teaching union working group writing advice for schools about school uniforms.
“We said that schools need to try to be inclusive rather than trying to make uniform an issue of contention, perhaps having a dress code rather than a uniform would allow a bit of flexibility,” she recalls.
“I gave the example of our school, where we had a colour. That was a unifying thing, and we had a cardigan, which was a unifying thing, but within that, there was a lot of flexibility.
“That advice was very well received at a time when it was very controversial.”
Today, a different row is raging over Islam in state schools, with Muslim parents protesting outside the gates of some Birmingham primary schools about LGBT content in some lessons.
“It’s interesting that a person from a Catholic background or Jewish background will actually have similar views to some of those Muslim parents," Nasir notes.
“It’s got to be age appropriate, and appropriate to the setting of the children. If there is a class of children where a child is coming from a background where they have two mums or two dads, I think it is probably very appropriate for the class teacher to talk about that.
“But if there isn’t, and if the kids have never come across this, for the school to be the first venue where that information is discussed is a bit insensitive, really.”