Children attending Boundary Community School from the 1980s. Courtesy of Salim Ullah.
British BangladeshiCultureLocal

How the collapse of supplementary schools in Tower Hamlets is putting Bengali at risk

In the second four-part series on the hidden costs of losing the Bangla language, we examine why Bengali supplementary schools in Tower Hamlets are disappearing and how this impacts the next generation of British Bangladeshis.

Read this series from the start.

‘I’m off to Fora now’ used to be a common thing for young British Bangladeshis to say. Bangla Foras, the Bengali name for supplementary schools, were common places for young children to learn their mother tongue. 

These schools were popular with parents. They offered their children the opportunity not only to learn Bengali but also support in their mainstream school subjects. 

They also kept the kids occupied in the evenings and school holidays.

But in 2020, Tower Hamlets Council cut funding to the Community Language Service (CLS). 

The CLS previously offered funding for mother tongue classes for children, not only in Bengali but in a range of other languages spoken in our diverse borough.

There was a significant backlash at the time. A campaign was launched and petitions were signed – one by almost 4,000 people. Rory Stewart, the ex-Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border and then-London Mayoral candidate, even spoke at a protest against the cuts.

Stewart was clear about the importance of the service. He said: ‘The strength of London is the languages we speak and we must preserve this for the younger generation.’

But the cuts went ahead. Tower Hamlets Council said they were facing budget cuts and the voluntary sector would be able to step in and continue language teaching.

This hasn’t happened and the funding hasn’t been restored by the new mayor Lutfur Rahman

This article is the second part of our four-part series exploring the importance of Bengali and Sylheti to the British-Bangladeshi community, how people are trying to sustain them and what the future holds.

Here we examine the role Bangla Foras used to play in Tower Hamlets, how funding cuts have impacted them and what new alternatives tell us about how British-Bangladeshi identity is changing. 

The Boundary Community School on Club Row was one of the most well-known supplementary schools. 

Places like this ‘created a literacy and fluency in Bangla which doesn’t exist anymore,’ says Julie Begum, co-founder of the Swadhinata Trust.

The school started in someone’s living room. A group of friends clubbed together to teach their children Bengali.

On Mother Tongue Day in 1983, the school moved to a more permanent home in the City and East London College on Club Row, next to Arnold Circus in Bethnal Green.

By 1989, 160 children were attending each week and 30 were on the waiting list.

Classes ran four days a week, with evening lessons from Tuesday to Thursday and a morning session on Saturdays. 

The school had one full-time youth and community worker, three part-time youth workers and eleven part-time teachers. 

It was free to attend and funded by donations and grants from local and national government bodies. 

Teaching Bengali was a high priority at the school. Its 1989 end-of-year report stated: ‘Our endeavour has always been to stress the importance of mother tongue education in this country.’

Schools like the Boundary School continued the East End’s long tradition of supplementary education, reminiscent of how young Jewish children would attend Cheders for religious and Hebrew lessons. 

The East End Community School was another well-known Bangla Fora. It was founded by Anwara Begum and Muhammad Nurul Huque in a basement flat in New Goulston Street, Aldgate in 1977. 

The flat is described as ‘damp and derelict’ in the Swadhinata Trust’s book Bengalis in the East End.

In 1980, it found a permanent home in a collection of Porta Cabins on Old Castle Street, Aldgate.

In 2010 there were 90 Bengali supplementary schools in Tower Hamlets, according to a report published by the Swadhinata Trust. 

Salim Ullah, who worked at the Boundary School for 16 years, explains why these schools were so important.

‘People need to know their language and culture. If they lose their language, maybe [they will] lose themselves,’ he says.

‘If you had to destroy any nation, you have to take out their language first.’

Keeping Bengali alive was one of the driving principles behind these schools. 

Salim Ullah looking through family albums of photographs.
Salim Ullah looking through old photos of the Boundary Community School. Photo by Felix Naylor Marlow © Social Streets CIC

But it wasn’t just about Bengali. It is important to remember the context in which these schools were founded.

The school’s 1989 report speaks of the ‘state of terror’ Bangladeshi families living in Tower Hamlets faced at that time.

Altab Ali was murdered only a few years before the school was founded in 1978.

And parents felt that their children were not receiving enough support from the authorities. 

The Boundary School’s 1987 report said that: ‘Even the physical safety of our children was being totally ignored by the authorities and white voluntary agencies.’

The schools stepped in to offer a place where children could be supported with their mainstream education and kept out of trouble.

In the 1970s and 1980s, English was not the first language of many of these children as many were born in Bangladesh. 

Along with teaching them Bengali, the schools offered them support in their other subjects which parents felt they weren’t getting in mainstream education. 

They also taught Arabic, an important skill for muslims to learn so that they can read the Quran and pray. 

The Boundary School even organised programmes in the school holidays and trips, such as to Thorpe Park, Kew Gardens and a day at the beach in Brighton. 

Ullah explains that it was important to give the children something to do and support them to prevent them from falling out of mainstream education and into trouble. 

Not only did Supplementary schools play a key role in sustaining Bengali, but they also played an important role in the British-Bangladeshi community. 

This isn’t the case anymore. 

The Boundary Community School closed during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Cuts to funding to the Community Language Service (CLS), which previously supported the schools, in 2020 by then-Mayor John Biggs meant the numbers just didn’t stack up anymore. 

A host of other Bangla Foras across Tower Hamlets faced a similar fate. 

Some, such as the East London Community School, are still struggling to keep going, but it’s a constant battle to secure enough funding to keep the lights on. 

In 2020, Cyras Kabir, who attended a Bangla Fora, told councillors at a meeting: ‘If this service is cut, over 1,500 students will lose the opportunity to learn languages. Save the CLS and save the children of Tower Hamlets.’

As Kabir predicted, Ullah says that the funding cuts have made it difficult for volunteers to continue to run the schools. 

He says the schools need around £200,000, which he believes is just a drop in the Council’s budget.

Ullah thinks it shows that British Bangladeshis are not a priority: ‘I don’t understand why they cut it. Maybe…they don’t like Bengali people, therefore they cut [the funding].’

But funding to Bengali supplementary schools hasn’t been reinstated under the new mayor Lutfur Rahman. 

A Council spokesperson said: ‘We are proud of the linguistic and cultural diversity in Tower Hamlets, where over 137 languages are spoken.

‘We recently celebrated International Mother Language Day on 21 February with community leaders, residents, and representatives of the Bangladesh High Commission.

‘We are currently reviewing our vision and plans regarding the council’s Community Languages Service.’

If funding isn’t reinstated, the remaining Bengali supplementary schools may find it hard to survive, a further blow for those working hard to retain the Bengali language in our borough.

However, as Bengali supplementary schools have declined, different forms of supplementary education have become popular in the British-Bangladeshi community.

These reveal the changing nature of British-Bangladeshi identity and suggest that Bengali is becoming a less important part of it. 

 ‘People need to know their language and culture. If they lose their language, maybe [they will] lose themselves’

Salim ullah

For Muslims, learning enough Arabic to pray and read the Quran has always been important. Arabic was taught at Bangla Foras. 

But over the past 25 years, there has been an increased focus on learning Arabic in Tower Hamlets. 

In contrast to Bengali supplementary schools, Arabic supplementary schools are doing well. 

The Qurtubah Institute is one example. They have two branches, one on Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel and another on Webber Path in Poplar. 

Their ‘mission is to create a new generation of young Muslims, who are confident and proud of their Deen.’ Deen means the religion or belief of a Muslim. 

Julie Begum thinks a shift happened as Islamophobia increased in the 2000s. British Muslims were increasingly ‘seen as being terrorists or irrational’, she says. 

Although British Bangladeshis continue to face racism, it’s different to the experience of previous generations, Begum explains. 

As a result, there was a ‘shift from language to more religious studies’ as parents wanted their children to feel confident in their religious identity. 

Importantly, Dr Fatima Rajina, an academic at De Montfort University, says this is not because parents don’t care about Bengali. 

‘It’s not about displacing [Bengali], it is more about prioritising what they feel is a necessity,’ she says. Many parents now feel Arabic is a necessity whereas Bengali is not. 

This is because religion is important to many British Bangladeshis. Rajina says: ‘They feel the way they can find salvation…is through faith, not through your heritage identity.’

She says it’s a simple case of supply and demand. More demand for Arabic means you’ll get more Arabic schools and fewer Bengali schools. 

The number of pupils taking Bengali GCSE supports this idea of shifting priorities. In 2008, 1,516 pupils sat GCSE Bengali. Since then, that number has gradually declined to 473 in 2023, according to figures from the exam board AQA.

However, it is important to note that these are national figures, so it’s difficult to draw concrete conclusions about Tower Hamlets from them.

Voluntary groups such as the Swadhinata Trust and Nijjor Manush have continued to provide supplementary education, but they don’t focus on the Bengali language. 

Rather, they aim to educate young people about Bangladeshi history and their heritage so they can be confident about their dual identity. 

The history, and the future, of the Bangla Fora shows how the role of the Bengali language has changed in Tower Hamlets. 

Once a self-evident part of identity and the community, its importance appears to be shifting. 

In the next part of our four-part series on the hidden cost of losing Bangla and Sylheti in Tower Hamlets, we examine the role of the Bengali press and ask whether it is still relevant to the younger generation of British Bangladeshis.

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