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New focus for Islamic grievance

Nicholas Pyke reports on Muslim disenchantment with state school RE, and Victoria Neumark offers a Jewish parent's perspective

Muslim disquiet with the state education system, an ever-present theme in the past two decades, has come to the fore once again. Last month it emerged that some 1,500 parents in Batley have been withdrawing their primary children from RE lessons since the start of term after taking advice from Islamic scholars.

Then last week Birchfield primary school in north Birmingham hit the headlines by organising RE lessons which, according to a Muslim parent governor, operate on the basis that Islam is the one true faith. Young children, say the parents, should be taught about their own faith before moving on to discuss any other religion. Multi-faith RE should be confined to secondary school. Underlying this and all other discussions of Muslim education is concern at the state's continued failure to fund a single Muslim school. This despite the 7,000 Christian and 24 Jewish schools receiving government aid.

The last and best attempt to obtain money for a Muslim school failed in the summer when the Government told Feversham College, a girls' school in Bradford, that its premises were so far outdated that voluntary aided status was impossible without millions of pounds worth of modification.

Muslim education groups were also upset when, earlier this year the Government rejected attempts by a Christian organisation, the Oak Hill Trust, to establish a Christian grant maintained school in Avon. The Government's interest in new religious schools it seemed, was wholly secondary to its concern to eliminate empty school places for the system.

Indeed, the Government's antipathy to the cause of religious schools in general and Muslim schools in particular was last week blamed for causing the near collapse of the best-known Muslim school in the country - the Brent Islamia Junior school, founded by Yusuf Islam (formerly pop star Cat Stevens). Famously rejected for voluntary-aided status after a lengthy court battle, the school has been relying on massive donations from Saudi benefactors, which have now been cut off by the Saudi Arabian government after Mr Islam was unwise enough to enquire into the well-being of Islamic scholars arrested in Britain. This meant an 85 per cent reduction in its outside income.

There are still some ways forward for Muslim schools: the Islamia Foundation in Brent is now optimistic about setting up a grant- maintained secondary school for girls and this week met up with architects from the Funding Agency for Schools to that end.

But such developments only affect a small minority of Muslims, whose numbers are variously estimated as between one and two million. The great majority will remain in ordinary state schools. This is why Muslim educationists are particularly concerned with the education their children receive in mainstream classrooms, and why people like Ibrahim Hewitt, education adviser with the Association of Muslim Schools, are pleased to see concerted action by parents.

For too long, he argues, individual Muslim families have been bullied by schools into accepting inappropriate treatment.

No one doubts that such anxiety is real enough. But there is also an argument, advanced among others by the author Shabbir Akhtar, that the educational concerns may be a displaced frustration with lack of recognition on a broader front. After 40 years in the country the community feels that it lacks a coherent voice and still has no member of Parliament. A symbolic gesture, says Mr Akhtar - even one state-aided Muslim school for example - would go a long way.

Poverty and high illiteracy rates among Muslims have not helped in the search for an effective political voice. Nor, says Ibrahim Hewitt, does a rather inward-looking brand of politics, more concerned with community status than with the practical effect in the broader world. But as a new, firmly British generation emerges, one which can no longer think of returning home, this he says may be changing.

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