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Muslims call for ballots

As faith schools expand, parents are seeking changes in the character of state schools, reports Nic Barnard.

SCHOOLS should be allowed to take on a religious character through a simple ballot of parents, Muslims have told the Government.

As a new team of ministers at the Department for Education and Skills prepares to enact plans to expand the number of faith schools, the Association of Muslim Schools (AMS) said it should be easier to change the character of existing, secular state schools.

It would be one way of creating the "distinct mission, ethos and character" that the Government says all schools should have, the association said. But newly-promoted Education Secretary Estelle Morris will have to tread carefully to avoid pitfalls highlighted by the creation of three new faith schools - one Muslim, two Church of England - in Bradford.

The AMS, led by Yusuf Islam, the former singer Cat Stevens, argues that state schools where a majority of pupils are Muslim are often run by non-Muslim governing bodies who do not understand the wishes or needs of the community and could even be biased against it.

But opposition to an expansion of faith schools comes from the National Secular Society, which warned ministers it would lead to a "greater splintering of society" along ethnic and sectarian lines and damage community schools as funding was channelled elsewhere. Meanwhile, the department is exploring the possibility of two or more Steiner schools becoming part of the state sector in a pilot scheme. Steiner schools follow an alternative philosophy of child-centred education Bradford has unofficially blazed a trailfor the Green Paper proposals, with two new Anglican schools opening under the city's massive schools reorganisation and the private Feversham Muslim girls' secondary winning voluntary-aided status and, with it, state funding.

Neither has been easy. Feversham's transition - after 10 years of trying which prompted the AMS to protest at "bureaucratic bottlenecks" - involved delicate union negotiations over pay and staffing structure.

Funded by the Muslim community until now, it paid staff well below national pay rates; even the head was paid less than many teachers in the state sector. But from September, when it goes voluntary-aided, they will all be on the national scale.

The school is also understood to be recruiting its all-female staff entirely by word of mouth, after Bradford council said it could not accept women-only advertising under existing discrimination laws.

More public - and potentially more explosive - has been a row over new Cof E school Immanuel College, which opened last September. Parents say they were told it would replace Eccleshill School, more than a mile away, which closed at the same time.

Immanuel, which reserves half its places for families with church links - many church schools reserve all their places - says that was never the intention. Around 60 children from two white, working-class estates who would have gone to Eccleshill have been refused places.

Instead, they have been offered places at another secondary school where 85 per cent of pupils are Asian. Most turned it down, and the British National Party is making political capital from the situation.

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