Exams during Ramadan: Supporting students

Written by: Anna Cole | Published:
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Ramadan will fall during this year’s summer examinations. Anna Cole discusses how to support Muslim students who are taking exams while also observing Ramadan

Once again, Ramadan coincides with exam season this year. Last year, it did so for the first time since the 1980s – and also saw the longest average fasting hours in the northern hemisphere during its 33-year cycle.

The clash with exams will continue until around 2019/20 as Ramadan shifts backwards by approximately 11 days every year. This year, it is predicted to start around May 27 and to end around June 26.

Last year, and again this year, I have worked with imams, Muslim chaplains, Islamic scholars, leaders and educationalists, to produce an information paper for ASCL members about Ramadan and exams.

The paper provides information and practical advice for school and college leaders, but does not endorse any particular interpretation of Islamic law or practice.

Rather than provide one Islamic answer, it presents various positions and practical information that school and college leaders can use to engage with Muslim students and families, and from which young Muslims and their families can draw their practice.

We started with the premise that there was a need for authentic good-quality information to support our members to initiate discussions with their Muslim students on how they can fulfil their Islamic obligations.

In order to do this, we brought together a diverse selection of British Muslim imams, chaplains and leaders from a range of sectors and from different schools of thought, including both Sunni and Shia.

We asked them what information school and college leaders needed to know to properly discuss the issues with Muslim students and families.

The imams, chaplains and scholars we consulted agreed that in order to give the information paper authority it was important that they were named as endorsers – and all endorsers are listed at the end of the paper. I have been told on good authority that they represent more than half of the Islamic schools of thought that are practised in Britain today. Here are some of the conclusions:

Fasting during exams

The paper highlights the importance of Ramadan in Islamic law, explaining some of the potential benefits and possible negative consequences of observing Ramadan. Fasting and staying up late for prayers may affect memory, focus, concentration and academic performance. Sleep deprivation should also be taken into account and may be the biggest factor affecting performance for young people who are both fasting and observing prayers at night. Anecdotally, some Muslim pupils say that fasting enhances their performance, particularly if they have been used to it for some years. There is huge enthusiasm for fasting and some young people, who have made a positive decision to fast, say they feel energised during Ramadan.

Physical impact

Observing Ramadan may bring many benefits to individuals and communities, but also has the potential to cause the individual temporary hardship through hunger and lack of liquids during fasting hours which may have an impact on physical wellbeing and cognitive performance. Some Muslim jurists allow students who are experiencing hardship to break their fast during Ramadan (and make up the days later) if it affects their ability to revise and study for important exams. The imams, Islamic scholars, experts, chaplains and leaders we consulted thought that sitting important examinations can be an exemption from fasting if a student fears that fasting will affect his or her performance adversely.

Taking their own decisions

A key feature of Islam is the diversity of possible interpretations of Islamic law. Islam, like most major religions, has a pluralist tradition and is composed of a wide range of interpretations. For example, scholars differ in their opinions on what age Muslims become obliged to fast, how long they should fast and what are legitimate exemptions. This plurality is considered a strength and Muslim traditions evolve and can respond to new issues that emerge. Reasoning is encouraged and this has allowed different schools of Islamic law to flourish. Islam encourages all Muslims to engage in critical reasoning. While individuals may seek advice from religious leaders, they have the right to make their own decisions.

Age limitations?

There are different schools of thought about the age at which fasting is obligated or recommended. Fasting is only obligatory under Islamic tradition when a child becomes an adult. However, jurists differ over when this is. Our endorsers were clear that no child under the age of puberty is obliged, or should be expected, to fast, but also explained that many young children may want to do a partial fast, which is best carried out under parental supervision after school hours.

Length of the fast

How Muslims determine the length of the fast is not straightforward and there are different schools of thought on this issue, which are detailed in our paper. Our endorsers agreed that there is a pressing need for UK-based religious authorities to collectively discuss this issue and recommend solutions for Muslim communities. In the absence of such guidance, ASCL has consulted as far as possible, putting the welfare and education of UK school children first.

Importance of education

The pursuit of education is a religious and moral duty for all Muslim students of both genders. Young Muslims and families, particularly those sitting exams this summer, will need to balance their obligations as Muslims with their studies and the importance of the examinations for their future.

A personal decision

If a young person is considered to be old enough to observe Ramadan, schools and colleges should not dictate to them (or their families) how it should be observed, and, unless there are legitimate safeguarding concerns, this must be a personal decision. However, Muslim students and families should be informed of the flexibility Islamic law offers to delay or exempt themselves from fasting and late-night prayers if they believe their performance in exams could be affected.

Should we ask about fasting?

We also address whether schools should ask pupils if they are fasting. Our endorsers were in agreement that teachers and staff need to know from parents if primary-age children are fasting, or partially fasting, so that they can safeguard against any risk to health. For secondary schools and colleges they thought that a more sensitive approach should be adopted.

Pupils’ health and wellbeing

With regard to safeguarding and other wellbeing issues, the paper gives advice to schools and colleges about what they can do to ensure that all pupils are kept safe. If the school notices signs of dehydration or exhaustion then the child should be asked if they are fasting and advised to terminate the fast immediately by drinking some water. They can be reassured that in this situation, Islamic rulings allow them to break their fast and make it up later.

Practical advice

Finally, our paper offers sound practical advice for schools and invigilators to ease the pressure on all students, but particularly Muslim students who decide to fast this summer. For example, good examination room management during hot weather will benefit all candidates; ensure that exam rooms are shaded, ensure fans and sufficient bottles of water are available. If possible, provide an outside shaded area and/or a cool, quiet room for students to use between exams.

  • Anna Cole is a parliamentary specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

The ASCL paper, Ramadan and Exams 2017, can be found at www.ascl.org.uk/ramadan2017


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