The recent news that Muslims are attempting to set up state-funded secondary schools in Birmingham and Bradford has reawakened fears that the national education system is becoming increasingly fractured along racial and religious lines.
But a leading authority on Britain's private religious schools predicts that there will be no stampede to establish sponsored grant-maintained Muslim schools.
Two private Muslim primary schools - Al-Furqan in Birmingham and Islamia in the London borough of Brent - became sponsored GM schools last month. They will switch to aided status next year.
But Dr Geoffrey Walford, reader in education policy at Oxford University, believes that only a handful of the 60 private Muslim schools have any hope of following suit.
"At present there are only about five other Muslim schools in England that would have a reasonable chance of becoming sponsored GM - mainly because the others lack financial and physical resources," he says. "Sponsored GM schools must meet 15 per cent of their building costs. The vast majority of Muslim children will continue to attend non-Muslim schools. This may be due to necessity, as there may be no Muslim schools nearby, or because parents and children may believe that a non-Muslim school is preferable."
Research in the early 1990s found that the majority of Muslims did not wish to send their children to Muslim schools.This helps to explain why only 7, 000 Muslim children - about 2 per cent - are thought to attend private religious schools. "They range from one expensive London school which is predominantly attended by children of diplomats, industrialists and professionals from the Far East to small, one-room schools for five or more children based in domestic houses," Dr Walford says in a paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research in Slovenia. "The largest school has nearly 2,000 pupils, but the average is about 120."
Last year about 20 per cent of pupils were educated in 7,000 religiously-based state schools. There are about 4,800 Church of England schools, and 2,140 Roman Catholic, 55 Methodist and 23 Jewish schools.
State support for schools for minorities in England: the "reluctant private sector", by Geoffrey Walford, Department of Educational Studies, Oxford University, 15 Norham Gardens, Oxford OX2 6PY. E-mail geoffrey.walford @edstud. ox.ac.uk