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Citizenship and Muslim schools

The debate over the place of faith-based education is set to continue, says Michael Russell.

Stand by for a bumpy February. The much reported speech last month by David Bell, England's chief inspector of schools, in which he raised questions about the ability of faith-based education to prepare young people for today's society was only a curtain-raiser for his annual report.

In fact, his headline-grabbing quote - which was taken by many to apply largely to Muslim schools and which led to a call for his resignation from the head of one such establishment in Huddersfield - was a direct lift from his upcoming official verdict on the state of education south of the border.

According to Mr Bell, there is now an urgent need for many faith-based schools, of all types, to "adapt their curriculum to ensure that it provides pupils with a general knowledge of public institutions . . . and helps to acquire an appreciation of and respect for other cultures in ways that promote tolerance and harmony".

In so far as difficulties exist - and Mr Bell drew attention to the vast growth in the number of such independent schools in England, where there are now more than 300, including 100 evangelical Christian ones - he is right to tackle the issue. But in Scotland faith-based education is overwhelmingly and firmly within the state sector. Our issues may therefore be different.

The wider context of Mr Bell's remarks was the issue of citizenship education, which he described as being the "worst taught subject". His title was: "What does it mean to be a citizen?" The complete speech is shot through with his vision of "Britishness" and with the need to re-engage young people in what he appears to think is an accepted and respected British political process.

And there is the first problem. Most current discussion (including Mr Bell's) about young people's alienation from our society, and particularly from the way our society is guided, governed and ordered, is predicated on solutions lying within education. Yet the overwhelming evidence - from the Jenkins Commission onwards - is that the turn-off arises from a dislike of formal politics by young and old alike and that, moreover, the fault lies with the politicians themselves.

If we do not have a tolerant, mutually respecting citizenry, it is more than likely the cause lies in a society whose elected leaders are regarded as being dogmatic, intolerant and addicted to petty point scoring. They are also widely seen to have failed in providing better public services and a moral approach to both national and international affairs.

Such an example is not one it would be wise to emulate. Little wonder, in fact, that the old anarchist slogan "don't vote, it only encourages them" is one whose time appears to have come. The task of creating a more participatory society may therefore lie somewhere other than in schools.

But while that work is in progress - and it has scarcely started, especially within the much vaunted but much delayed "new politics" that Scotland was meant to get in 1999 - there is still the opportunity for education to contribute something which will improve the way we relate to each other.

There is much to be commended in the work of many schools in seeking to involve their students in community activity and in environmental projects.

To that extent "citizenship" as one of our national priorities in education seems to be working. In addition, there are, throughout the country, lots of caring, supportive, tolerant, democratic and inclusive schools which are increasingly helping their pupils to acquire key citizenship skills, including good behaviour and respect for the rule of law.

Such an ethos is to be found in every sector, including in Scottish faith-based schools. Indeed it is a national requirement, supervised by the state. And if in schools of one faith, then why not in schools of another? For there is nothing in the Muslim religion as practised in this country that runs counter to such an ethos.

Recent adverse HMI reports about the Imam Muhammad Zakariya School in Dundee, which were taken up by some as a stick to beat the Islamic school movement, were actually centred on the fact that the school was badly run, poorly staffed and inadequately housed. In a sense the Campaign for State Muslim Schools in Scotland, which is presently being stymied by officialdom at every turn, was right to say that the verdict actually strengthened its case.

Opposition to the involvement of religion in education is the bedrock of the education system of other countries, such as France and the United States. But it may run the risk of being based merely on fear of the unknown. It was just that fear which, not so many centuries ago, meant that Roman Catholics, by virtue of their faith, were also held to be incapable of creating the type of society that our rulers wished. Extraordinarily, such a stance is still enshrined within the constitution, and one cannot be the monarch, or even the Lord Chancellor, if one is Catholic.

Good Muslim schools, within the state sector, might well add to the diversity of our national educational experience, just as the Jewish school does in Glasgow. They would also provide a chance for Muslim young people to develop the appropriate way of relating that faith to our society and to the type of Scotland they seek, always with the help and guidance of the state itself.

We should not refuse some religions the rights which we enshrine in law for others. That position just alienates even more of those whose contribution to our national well-being is essential.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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