Bell leaps into faith row

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Muslim schools outraged by claim they damage social cohesion but others have defended the Ofsted chief. Jon Slater and Tim Ross report

Chief inspector David Bell must have known he was walking into controversial waters this week, when he accused some private Muslim schools of being a threat to social cohesion because they did not teach enough about other cultures.

Mr Bell told an audience in Westminster that traditional Islamic education offered by a growing number of schools "does not entirely fit" children for life in modern Britain.

Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, led the attack. He said: "We consider it highly irresponsible to suggest that the growth of Muslim faith schools poses a threat to our coherence as a nation.

"The issue around schools not preparing children for 'their wider responsibility and obligations' is a generic issue affecting all poorly resourced schools. At present there are more than 100 Muslim schools, but only five of them receive state funding."

But Mr Bell did have some support. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Humanist Society and the National Association of Educational Inspectors Advisers and Consultants, backed his view.

In the 20 years since the first Muslim school opened in Britain the demand for a more traditional Islamic education has grown dramatically. The first Muslim school to receive state funding was the Islamia primary, the north London school founded by Yusuf Islam, formerly known as the pop singer Cat Stevens. The school recently fell foul of the local government ombudsman over its admission procedures.

Very few non-Muslims attend Islamic faith schools, despite their often good exam results. Feversham college, an Islamic girls' school in Bradford which has been state-funded for four years, topped last week's GCSE value-added league tables.

Canon John Hall, Church of England head of education, backed the call for more Muslim schools to receive public money. Bringing more Islamic schools into the state system would ensure they follow the national curriculum, he said.

He said: "I regret the fact that Muslim schools felt under attack. It is difficult to make the points David Bell made and have them reported neutrally."

Marilyn Mason, Humanist Association education officer, said: "Those who have leapt to the defence of Muslim schools may be basing their response on atypical or limited personal experience. David Bell, on the other hand, has the evidence of Ofsted reports on a great many schools informing his concerns."

The National Union of Teachers said Ofsted's findings should act as a warning to the Government about allowing religious groups to sponsor academies, independent state-funded schools.

Steve Sinnott, NUT general secretary, said: "Ofsted's findings show the Government needs to put safeguards in place about what sponsors of any faith can do."

* The Home Office has announced that over the next nine months it will be consulting on setting up citizenship ceremonies for 18-year-olds, similar to those already used in Australia and parts of the United States. The Government also announced in its new strategy for racial equality and social cohesion that it would be holding a Citizenship Day later this year to boost interest in the subject.

Another Voice, 22

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