Face up to faith schools

Muslim parents should have the right for their children to have separate schools, even if theynever use it, says Henry Maitles

hose who are not particularly religious and just want a good local school (according to opinion polls, most of the population) find the issue of faith schools can be difficult.

It is ironic that discussion around faith schools, particularly post-911, tends to concentrate on Islam. Ironic, because in Britain, and particularly in Scotland, this is nothing to do with reality. The vast majority of faith schools in Scotland are Catholic, with one Jewish primary school.

The debate has been partly fostered by the Muslim community which believes its culture is under threat and that it can better defend it, and indeed counter racism, by having separate Muslim schools. In reality, we must have clear understanding of two issues.

First, the question of double standards. Muslim parents rightly feel that, if there are state Catholic and Jewish schools, there should be Muslim ones.

The most comprehensive survey of Muslim opinion on this (the 1997 Fourth National Survey, edited by Tariq Modood) argued that "the demand for public funding of Muslim schools has been a source of Muslim grievance, with some secular as well as religious Muslims highlighting the injustice of a system that funds Christian and Jewish schools but not Muslim ones".

Second, there is an argument to be had with Muslim parents, but only in the context of them having the right to have their own faith schools, about whether there are advantages in having ethnic- minority children in their own schools. With much evidence of an increase in racism, is it not desirable to have mixed-race multi-faith schools where the majority community sees its role as defending the minority community from racism, as supposed to hiving it off into its own schools?

Aren't the lessons of history, in particular from Nazism in the 1930s, that it is vital for the host community to involve itself in opposing the growth of racist and fascist ideas? What I am suggesting is that combating racism, something that most of us would regard as vital, has potentially the best chance of having its greatest impact in mixed-race schools rather than faith schools.

There is a lot of evidence that Muslim parents are open to the argument.

For example, the survey of Muslim opinion found that half of Muslim parents supported faith schools but only 50 per cent of that 50 per cent wanted to send their kids to a faith school; most wanted a good, local, mixed school.

They want the right to have these schools like other faiths but are not particularly keen to take up the option. It always seems to me a little like divorce - good to have in law, but not something that should be forced on people.

There is no evidence to suggest that Muslim parents cannot continue to hold that position, particularly if all our state schools encourage cultural diversity and challenge institutional racism. Further, there is a central issue of rights. Faith schools tend to have a philosophical grounding in parents' rights, whereas there is a case for putting children's rights at the centre of the agenda rather than parents' faith, which may actually get in the way.

However, for it to become reality, there must be a consistent stand against racism, racial disadvantage and other inequalities in the education system.

Indeed, while there are ridiculous campaigns against political correctness, there are still examples of open and institutional racism in our schools.

There is no reason why there cannot be provision for cultural, linguistic and religious diversity within the one school.

There is no contradiction here. We must demand equal rights in education for ethnic minorities: that means them having their own schools. But, at the same time, there is an argument for them not taking up this right as it might not be in their best interests.

Henry Maitles is head of curricular studies in Strathclyde University's education faculty.

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