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Muslim choice is not a problem

A media circus has developed around what should, if our education system was truly pluralist and multi-faith in nature, have attracted little more than passing nods of recognition. Muslims in Batley and Birmingham have considered and acted upon the educational options open to them.

Central to the issue in both places is parental choice, a generally agreeable concept except, it seems, when Muslims are doing the choosing.

Given that parental choice in education is a political flavour of the month, and that the withdrawal option has been available since 1944, is it really that surprising when parents choose to exercise it?

Kirklees Council has, in public at least, played the matter down in Batley, preferring to endorse the parents' rights rather than seek a confrontation.

Maybe the school governors and headteachers directly involved believe they did everything they could to avoid the withdrawals.

However, knowing what is possible and then considering the apparently impossible was the refreshingly different approach taken at Birchfield primary in Birmingham.

At Birchfield primary school, the local education authority governors and head not only heard parents' concerns, they listened.

Of course, it has not been a smooth ride, but here is a school with 70 per cent Muslim pupils on roll which now gives parents Islamic religious education.

The fact that some Muslim parents at Birchfield continue to send their children into multi-faith classes is confirmation, surely, that the arrangement offers the sort of choice which is more than rhetoric.

Birchfield has the advantage of a qualified RE teacher who happens to be a Muslim (and an Islamic scholar to boot); the probability of non-Muslims teaching Islam to Muslim children was one of the reasons given for the withdrawals in Batley.

The number of suitably qualified teachers in Kirklees makes the Birchfield experience an unlikely option there as it stands. It does give food for thought, however.

Both episodes give an insight into the workings of different LEAs and schools and the fact that parental choice was satisfied in Birmingham without the disruption of mass withdrawals reflects rather badly on Kirklees.

If schools and LEAs are to serve a community, just how far can they reasonably be expected to go in trying to satisfy parental choice? This may be a good time for chief education officers to re-examine their procedures and guidelines for dealing with parents and minority communities for there are vastly different standards and attitudes around the country.

While it is true that parents should take seriously their educational responsibilities, their rights should not be brushed aside. Sadly, the contempt of officialdom is well known to Muslim parents. There are limits to what any school and LEA can do, but Birchfield has shown that those limits can be beyond what is generally thought possible.

There clearly exist, within existing legislation, more exciting possibilities for effective education than is currently admitted by most bureaucrats and practitioners. What are they scared of?

Without a willingness to experiment and take on board the concerns and ideas of minorities, seeking viable solutions, stagnation sets in, and withdrawals like those in Batley would become a regular feature of our schools. Nobody in their right mind wants that without first exploring every possible option.

Accommodating parental choice, as Birchfield has done, could on the other hand be the catalyst for change leading to the sort of pluralist education system which works so well for some of our European neighbours, catering for minorities within the mainstream system for the benefit of all and to the detriment of none. And that may not be an entirely bad thing.

Ibrahim Hewitt is development officer of the Association of Muslim Schools (UK and the Republic of Ireland).

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