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Blunkett faces religious wrath

Dorothy Lepkowska reports on Muslim and Seventh-day Adventist demands for grant-maintained status

Leaders of Britain's minority religious schools this week stepped up their campaign for grant-maintained status, accusing the Government of discrimination and of dithering over their applications.

Representatives from the Muslim and Seventh-day Adventist schools said the Education Secretary David Blunkett was "sitting on" the proposals in the hope that the schools would "give up and go away".

This week the Muslim community published a full-page open letter to Mr Blunkett in a national newspaper, claiming they were being left out in the cold amid fears that their desire for state-funded schools was isolationist. They pointed to the success of Christian and Jewish state schools to back their call for equal treatment for Muslim children.

Ibrahim Hewitt, of the Association of Muslim Schools, said leaders of his organisation were angered recently when a meeting intended to be with Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, was taken by an employment minister.

"This indicates the interest and the commitment that this Government attaches to our cause," he said. "We are not being taken seriously. Our greatest concern is that if the law changes and GM status is effectively revoked, we will have to go through the same process all over again."

The open letter, signed by 10 prominent Muslim educationists, said Government backing for its schools would "demonstrate its desire to build shared values and the promotion of good citizenship or all communities equally". It added that such a move would be "one of the wisest possible decisions, making British Muslims proud to acknowledge that we are not an isolated community but an integral part of a forward-thinking, balanced and guided society".

The Muslims initially want GM status for the Islamia primary school in north London and the Al-Furquan school in Birmingham, but have not ruled out further applications. The success or otherwise of their demands will have a direct impact on the John Loughborough school in Haringey, which is run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

John Loughborough already has the backing of the Funding Agency for Schools, and claims that Haringey education department's fears over its standards are now unfounded because GCSE results have risen dramatically. In 1997, 48 per cent of candidates gained five or more A* to C grades, compared with 22 per cent a year earlier.

Keith Davidson, the Seventh-day Adventist Church's education director for the south of England, said there was a waiting list of parents who could not afford the Pounds 2,000-a-year fees but wished to send their children to John Loughborough school.

Members of the church reject the theory of evolution and are awaiting the Second Coming of Christ. They do not smoke, drink or take drugs and they observe the Sabbath on Saturdays.

Mr Davidson said: "If we are not recognised soon, then we cannot take part in any future discussions on the status of church schools. The Government appears to be afraid of opening its doors to us and the Muslims.

"But in the process it is discriminating against hundreds of children and their parents. There are fundamental issues of equal opportunities here.

"The Catholics and Anglicans are allowed to have their own schools but we cannot, even though we are also Christians."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "We are still considering their applications. The Government is not dragging its feet and will make a decision as soon as it possibly can."

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