In good faith

20th February 1998 at 00:00
The acceptance of Muslim schools into the state framework could have positive benefits for relations between the religions.

The decision to grant state funding to two Muslim schools has generally been welcomed. For some time now the decision has seemed to be almost inevitable; it is no real surprise that a Government which has shown a willingness to be radical in so many other ways should also have made this move.

It still leaves open the trickier issue about what is to be done about applications from Evangelical independent schools and from other fringe groups. As head of a denominational Anglican school, I believe the decision is to be welcomed; on the other hand I also believe that once the full implications have become clear, some Muslim educationists may come to regret it.

The most obvious and, some would say, only reason for finally accepting the case for state funding for Muslim schools is fairness. It has long been argued that if Anglican, Roman Catholic and Jewish schools can receive state funding, then natural justice means that Muslims are entitled to the same treatment.

Reservations about state funding for Muslim schools have, of course, been expressed many times in the past, usually on the grounds of a perceived lack of commitment to equal opportunities and the national curriculum. Now that funding has finally been granted, it will quickly become apparent that voluntary-aided status will require not only commitment in those areas but also in many others, as yet apparently unconsidered, if initial reactions from some Muslim spokespersons are any guide.

Zahar Ashraf, a spokesperson for Islamia school in Brent, north-west London, one of the successful applicants, was widely reported as saying:

"For many years Muslim parents have, through their taxes, been funding schools of other denominations. This has caused great anger and resentment."

The comment betrays a certain naivity, perhaps excusable given the newness of the situation in which Islamia school now finds itself. Has Mr Ashraf not realised that for years childless couples have paid for the education of children who are not theirs; that parents using independent schools have always paid with their taxes for schools their children do not go to? Even more significantly he is apparently unaware that many British taxpayers have always bitterly resented paying for any kind of denominational education, be it Anglican, Catholic or any other flavour.

State funding of religious schools is a highly contentious issue in many countries: in Britain its history is especially tortuous and complex. In bidding for, and accepting, state funding, the accepted Muslim schools are now, or shortly will be, in the same position as existing denominational schools. Their priorities, and even their way of thinking, will inevitably have to change.

State-funded Muslim schools will now hopefully join all the other parties involved in denominational education in wishing to put forward a credible case for spending taxpayers' money on our schools. A key element of that case will surely be that denominational schools are unequivocally state schools. As an Anglican state school we are as protective of the second half of our designation as we are of the first.

A barely noticed feature of the recent announcement is that while it is a bid for grant-maintained status which has been accepted, both of the successful schools will be accorded VA status as part of the forthcoming legislation. No inconsistency there: the Secretary of State has previously announced that Church GM schools would also revert to VA status. But not only are VA schools state schools, they are also, unlike GM schools, an integral part of a local authority. Representatives of the LEA sit on their governing bodies, admission policies are worked out in agreement with the LEA and good VA schools work hard at their relationships with other schools in the local area.

Other sensitive issues await, most notably the content of the religious studies curriculum. A voluntary-aided Muslim school will retain the privilege of devising its own RE syllabus. Church VA schools have traditionally been sensitive in the matter of other faiths. As state-funded schools they have seen it as their duty to ensure that their students become "religiously literate". Tolerance is a virtue. Great care is taken not to proselytise for one point of view.

Muslim schools have felt largely ignored by the educational establishment and have seemed somewhat isolated and defensive. The co-operation and openness expected of them under the new arrangements will, therefore, take some time to achieve. Once that is achieved, the acceptance of Muslim schools into the state framework could have far-reaching and positive benefits for inter-faith relations. VA schools are generally very popular; they can look forward to a bright future with a supportive Labour Government.

Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, who presented Channel 4's series Canterbury Tales on the Church, is reported as saying of Church schools that "parents may not believe in God but they recognise a good education when they see one". That, no doubt, will also be true of Muslim state schools. Welcome aboard!

Dennis Richards is headteacher of St Aidan's Church of England High School, Harrogate

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