Do we need more state faith schools?

19th August 2005 at 01:00
After the London bombs, should we halt the expansion of faith schools, or will they tackle extremism by teaching proper values to disaffected youth? Below, readers give their views.

YES. says Idris Mears

From a Muslim perspective, last month's terrible bomb attacks on London make it all the more important that the Government continue to expand faith schools in the state sector. Far from adding to tensions and leading to segregation, giving Muslims access to state-funded faith schools will do much to tackle the underlying tensions in our society.

All schools in this country evolved from schools set up by the Christian churches. Even the first state-funded schools were, reflecting British society, broadly Christian in ethos. Faith schools are thus historically the norm in this country and over a third of schools in the state sector are voluntary-aided faith schools.

From the perspective of history, secular schools are a recent experiment and the jury is still out on their social benefit. Secularism can be seen as a state religion that holds all other beliefs as equally invalid anthropoligical relics. That it is a religion which does not name itself fits with the fact that its high priests are not the politicians who perform its rituals but the financial elite who hold the real power.

Similarly its value system is framed in terms of human rights and citizenship but its reality is lived out in terms of consumerism and debt.

Many people who fear the breakdown of values that the rise of this duplicitous system has brought see faith schools as a bastion against its ravages. Parents who send their children to faith schools will tell you they do so because they want them to learn about discipline, authority, and the difference between right and wrong. They want to shield their children from sexualisation and frenzied consumerism preached by television and teen mags. No wonder plenty of atheists suddenly feel the call of faith as their children nears school age.

Faith schools may get a bad press, but are also attracting a lot of new students. At present, according to the 2001 census, a third of all children described as Christian can take up places in Christian-ethos voluntary-aided schools at some stage in their education. Forty per cent of Jewish children can attend Jewish schools. However, just 0.4 per cent of Muslim children, have access to the five Islamic-ethos voluntary-aided schools now open.

Islamic-ethos state schools perform excellently. In 2005, Feversham college, a girls' secondary school in Bradford, topped the national league table for improving pupils' performance with Al Hijrah secondary school in Birmingham ranked tenth. The tests results of the three state Muslim primaries are similarly impressive. This has galvanised the Department for Education and Skills into awarding the Association of Muslim Schools a pound;100,000 grant to help independent Muslim schools enter the state sector.

Let us clear up some pernicious misconceptions about Islamic-ethos state schools. They are not just for Muslims but deliver the national curriculum and offer places to non-Muslims. Because of their relative newness and public ambiguity about them, these places are not yet being taken up but this will inevitably happen.

More importantly, Islam is not a culture, it is a faith system that adapts to and also reciprocally shapes the cultures it impacts on. Voluntary-aided schools with an Islamic ethos help pupils to evolve as English Muslims - English not British because at present there are only Islamic-ethos state schools in England and because British is a political, not organic identity.

In fact Islamic-ethos schools are more effective than non-religious state schools in tackling the cultural isolation and resentment simmering in Muslim ghettos.

It was not the pupils or graduates of Muslim schools, whether state or independent, rioting in the streets of Bradford and Oldham or blowing themselves up in London.

Idris Mears is director of the Association of Muslim Schools.

NO. says Fawzi Ibrahim

It is not surprising for the Imams, Muslim scholars and assorted Muslim organisations to defend Islam from the accusation that it sanctions suicide bombings. What is surprising, however is for almost everyone else (from Tony Blair to George Galloway) to echo the same message. The implication is that, had such actions been sanctioned by the Qur'an, they would be justified.

This approach plays neatly into the hands of the fundamentalists who are as adept as the scholars at selectively quoting the Qur'an to prove their point. The problem of course, is not religious fundamentalism, but religion itself. Apologists invite us to compare the London suicide bombers with the IRA and Baader-Meinhof gang. But, while the last two carried out acts of murder, they never claimed to be motivated by a higher supernatural being.

History is littered with those who gave up their lives for a cause. But never has the very act of killing oneself been an end in itself. For a young person to take his life as a shortcut to paradise is obscene, second only to the obscenity of old bearded men directly or indirectly urging these young men to do what they themselves would not contemplate.

If we as a society are serious about fighting the spread of desperate alienation of young Muslims, we should stop pandering to religion and stop patronising ethnic minorities. As a first step we must declare a moratorium on new religious schools and gradually convert all faith schools into non-religious state schools. Meanwhile an overhaul of religious education is needed to turn timid acceptance of religious ideas into critique.

Multiculturalism - which has transformed colonial-style patronising of ethnic minorities into a philosophy - must be ditched in favour of treating people of different origins as equal and challenging oppressive and backward parts of their culture and religion.

Faith is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "firm belief, esp.

without logical proof". As a matter of principle, no education establishment should be based on assertions not subject to proof.

By their nature, faith schools, a glorified form of madrassas, are divisive. Apart from indoctrinating of children they try to create an artificial community, which in the case of Muslim schools, is an international Muslim community that transcends society, an idea echoed in the ideology behind Bin Laden and other fundamentalists.

But there is no such thing as a Muslim community. A Saudi prince may face the same way and pray to the same Allah as an Iraqi oil worker, but they share no common interests. Neither does the British Muslim businessman or landlord with the Muslim sweatshop women workers or tenants. The same concept gives rise to the sectarian notion that the war for the control of Iraq's oil is motivated by an anti-Islam agenda.

There is no better illustration of the fallacy of "the Muslim community" than the fact that Muslims from different nationalities feel affinity with those from their country of origin rather than Muslims in general and thus largely worship in thier own, separate mosques.

The concept of a Muslim community which has so readily and uncritically been accepted by everyone, suits the Imams who can then keep their stranglehold on Muslims and helps maintain economic exploitation and oppression, especially of women.

As for the presumed benefits of faith schools (better results, behaviour, etc.), these can all be replicated by state schools. Even if they can't, they pale into insignificance compared with the damage to young minds caused by religious indoctrination.

Faith schools may not promote suicide bombing, but they prepare its doctrinal building blocks. They have to go.

Fawzi Ibrahim is a part-time FE lecturer and author. He was treasurer of lecturers' union NATFHE between 1998 and 2005

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today