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Muslim schools are a good thing

JUST as it was after 9/11, the public debate about faith schools is in full swing. It was predictable that, once the dust had begun to settle after the July bombings, the various axes would be due for another grinding.

Polly Toynbee was first up, preaching her hatred of religion. "In the name of God" was the headline: "Blair has appeased and prevaricated. Now, as the death cult strikes again, he must oust religion from public life" ( The Guardian, 22 July). All religions were prone to delusion, given the right circumstances, she said; extreme superstition bred extreme action.

Dismissing religious moderates along with the "carefully homogenised" Thought for the Day preachers, she described all religion as a world of dreams. "All the state can do is hold on to secular values. It can encourage the moderate but it must not appease religion. There is still time to stop this madness and separate the state and its schools from all religion."

A less obvious critic of faith schools was Libby Purves. But she has form. Her assault in the autumn of 2001 was in The Times; in 2005, it was in The Tablet: again, a blunderbuss rather than a rapier. She remembered her own convent education: church schools were for parents well organised and well behaved enough to go
to church, and who could withstand the interview. (Did she not know that interviews were banned at the Churches' initiative?)

The benefits of better behaviour and a calmer atmosphere in a former community school in Hartlepool, St Hild's C of E High School, were mocked. And she seems to think religion is safe for the better-off: "Let parents determined to imbue education with their own religion start their own schools, and pay for them."

But the heart of her argument, poking shyly through the verbiage, seemed to be much the same as Polly Toynbee's. Religion is too threatening for the public sphere, and is at its best, as in the US, when it is associated with community, family, and leisure, producing "immensely strong and simple-hearted manifestations of Christianity".

Radio and television have played their part in the debate, too. Frank Dobson and I had five minutes together on BBC TV Breakfast's red settee, but he is no longer a pure abolitionist. And Keith Porteous Wood, the executive director of the National Secular Society, the balance for me on the airwaves more times than I can remember, had a rather ill-disciplined exchange with a Muslim headteacher and me, courtesy of Sky News.

The opportunistic timing of these intellectual assaults suggests that they are not attacks so much on church schools and other faith schools as on Islam and on religion itself. They can have a corrosive effect, and need to be resisted.

Happily, not all the arguments have gone one way. Deborah Orr, in an impressive piece in The Independent, confessed her change of heart, having been moved by the letters she received after a post-9/11 article assaulting faith schools. The Prime Minister reasserted his commitment to increasing the number of Muslim schools benefiting from government funding. David Cameron, the Conservative shadow education secretary and a potential leader, was in agreement on Radio 4's Westminster Hour.

THE FACTS need to be stated clearly. There are now 150 or so Muslim schools in Britain, of which 145 are funded entirely by the parents, some charging as little as £700 a year, but still aiming to provide a full education for their pupils. Contrast this with the cost of a pupil in a Government-funded school (say, £5000 a year) and in a mainstream independent school (say, £10,000).

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector has criticised some of these 145 Muslim schools for providing inadequate education. We should not be surprised. The five schools that receive government funding can afford decent salaries for teachers, and the range of learning assistants and support staff, teaching materials, and equipment that other maintained schools enjoy. All 150 schools should be able to enjoy the same benefits. The Government seems to be planning that they should.

Will this be divisive? The schools already exist. They will be better-funded and able to offer a better education. In the maintained sector, they will teach the National Curriculum, including citizenship education.

Will they promote ignorance or hatred? There is nothing to suggest they will. Quite the reverse. The minority-faith schools that I have visited seem admirable in their aims and ethos. None of the July bombers went to a Muslim school in England. Hatred is surely engendered not in such a school, but by the denial of respect, through the denigration of a community's religion, and through a loss of identity and self-respect.

All this has a familiar ring to anyone aware of events 100 years ago. Then, it was Roman Catholic schools that were under attack. A Tory Act in 1902 had provided rate support for church schools. There was an outcry against "Rome on the rates". Then the Liberal government, elected on the back of this outcry, introduced an Education Bill in 1906, to abolish state funding for church schools. Passed by the Commons, but blocked by the Lords, the Bill failed to reach the statute book. Church schools survived.

With hindsight, it is clear that Roman Catholic schools gave a largely immigrant community a sense of place and respect in British society, a means of recognising twin loyalties, as it must have seemed at first: as British Catholics.
Canon Hall is the Church of England's chief education officer.

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