An investigation into student needs in complementary Ismaili Muslim schooling in Toronto

Shezeleen Kanji was working in a complementary school in the Shia Imami Ismaili Religious Education (RE) system in Toronto, Canada when this study was conducted in 2010. In this system, denominational RE classes are run by professional teachers in Ismaili places of worship outside of mainstream school hours.  A new programme for the Religious Education of Ismaili Muslim secondary age pupils was in its inaugural phases at this time. Prior to the introduction of this new programme, no data had been collected around student emotional and social needs. Based on her observations in the RE spaces in the west sector of Toronto she noticed some students appeared to lack self-esteem, felt isolated among their peers, were victims of bullying, felt stressed about coming to the RE space, or had physical or learning disabilities that could not be addressed. At the time, there was no parent council or a platform for students to be able to voice their needs. In addition, the governance model of this system was also still evolving; there was felt to be a need for an institutional model with a focus on addressing the needs of the community’s young people. This study examined the organization and governance structures for the complementary school programme to see if they could be altered to best care for student needs specifically in the areas of academic, social, emotional, safety and security needs.


photo of the holistic needs of the child

The needs of the child should be a paramount concern in a community faith-based Religious Education (RE) system. Being a student myself in this system prior to my becoming an RE teacher, I too had needs which were not met in this community space–a space that stresses the holistic development of the child–and which affected my engagement in RE. I was aware that this new RE model, Bait ul Ilm* Encounters, being introduced into the community advocated a student-centered holistic approach; so I wanted to explore creating an institutional and governance model that could support and meet the holistic needs of students in the areas of academic, social, emotional, safety and security needs

Student questionnaires, semi-structured interviews with teachers, interviews with various members of the governance team, and a focus group with the local board members formed the basis of this research.


A closed-ended questionnaire was administered to twenty-two students from two local classes.  The questionnaire focused on establishing the nature of the students’ emotional and social needs, and was categorized into four basic areas (academic, social, emotional, safety and security) derived from Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs. The questionnaire also gave students an opportunity to write about other needs affecting their participation in complementary religious education that were not identified on the questionnaire. Students ranked (from a list) the top three individuals they would turn to for supporting a particular need. Objectives derived from the RE curriculum were outlined in the questionnaire with an accompanying close-ended question to gauge if these objectives were being met for students and an open-ended question inviting students to comment on how these objectives could be better met. Two questions were asked in order to seek students’ opinion about the involvement of ‘student voice’ in RE matters.


Semi-structured interviews with four local grade eight** teachers were conducted.

A structured interview with the Academic Director and an unstructured interview with the school Team Leader took place to obtain qualitative data about the relationship between the executive and non-executive leadership teams, and how this influences policy and the student body. The school team leader offered the following comment:

The student was always in the centre and how ‘we’ (the rest) fit in was in relation to the student…

Focus Group

The focus group consisted of four local board members who manage the complementary school programme throughout all sectors of Toronto. The purpose of this focus group was to have members come together to explore attitudes, feelings, opinions, ideas and perceptions about student needs including the intricacies and apprehensions surrounding the formulation of an organizational structure to support student needs.

photo of classroom space to allow students more space for deliberation and voice and agencyNeeds emerging out of the study

This study found that for the most part the young people’s social, emotional, safety and security needs were being met. This was contrary to my initial assumptions. I learned that building an inclusive community, and having RE teachers take on various pastoral roles has helped create rapport between teacher and student which in turn has assisted in meeting social and emotional needs of students. However, the research revealed a need to provide more spaces in the programme for social interaction, and to develop interactive pedagogical approaches.

The complementary RE teachers also need more support, notably in understanding the complex social context of their students.  There was a particular issue around English as an additional language for many of the pupils in the study.  Over a quarter of the young people were challenged with the reading and writing aspects of the complementary RE curriculum. This was a concern for teachers who felt a need to be better equipped to cater to the different learning abilities in the classroom. This is an area that would benefit from further research.

Support systems

The second area investigated was the organisation of support systems for all involved in a new and evolving complementary school programme.  My work suggested that meeting student holistic needs is also related to meeting the needs of teachers:  teachers were ranked as one of the top three individuals to provide support for students in their holistic development, and teachers need support in this area of their work–particularly in complementary RE education.

Another clear theme that emerged from the data was that of student voice, and I have suggested that students should be given a more active voice as consultants in the development of the Ismaili RE secondary education programme.  We would all benefit if we saw the young people who are participants in the programme as a resource who can help build a better educational experience, and who provide support for their peers as they explore questions of religion.

proposed organizational and governance modelImplications for Governance Structures

I found it problematic having a collaborative, holistic RE programme such as BUI Encounters operating within a leadership model that was entirely vertical or horizontal. As a result of my work, I came up with an alternative model for governance of this supplementary RE programme, one that builds on the strengths of the existing model, and uses ideas embedded in communicative processes and relationships. The proposed model integrates the existing vertical, centralized governance structures with other ways of letting the grassroots contribute. This is a cascading, dialectical, and easily permeable one (indicated by dashed lines in each layer within the model) showing how we should seek to build capacity between individuals in each layer, with the aim of the student as the focal point. The concentric circles represent layers of grassroots activity, across which individual internal and external support can be drawn from existing central structures, shown by the double-headed arrows.  As the programme evolves, the model allows room for expansion for other support layers.

Shezeleen Kanji is standing on the right

Shezeleen Kanji (r) with Dr Farhad Daftary

What did I find out?

The key findings of this research suggest that when creating an institutional model it cannot be a one-way process governed by those who create policy. I found that in order to look at student needs and support, I was required to consult many individuals who serve at different levels in the institution to understand their opinions, roles and communication processes.

It is intended and hoped that the research I have undertaken will continue to inform policy within the institutional structure and develop sustaining partnerships with internal and external community institutions to better meet student needs.

* ‘Bait ul Ilm’ is Arabic for ‘the House of Knowledge’
** Grade 8 in Canada implies children of age 13-14

Shezeleen’s full report can be read here:  MTEACH Report final-Shezeleen Kanji


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