The Government has acted to stem controversy surrounding reports of officially ordained "Islamic" religious education lessons at a Birmingham primary .
A Muslim governor recently sparked national interest by stating that Birchfield offers a wholly Muslim alternative to the multi-faith approach set down in the law, with the approval of the Birmingham local education authority.
Lady Olga Maitland, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam and a prominent churchgoer, added to the controversy by asking Her Majesty's Inspectors to visit the school to ensure that the curriculum still contains appropriate amounts of Christianity.
Now the Department for Education and Employment has stepped in with a statement saying that Birchfield is continuing to teach pupils about Christianity and Hinduism as well as Islam. The school, says the DFEE, is using the same multi-faith RE syllabus as before. "All that has happened is that the school has appointed a Muslim teacher to teach the agreed RE syllabus to those children whose parents so wish," a spokesman said.
Its statement backs up what the school and Birmingham local education authority have said all along. The key point, said an LEA spokesperson, is that the RE teacher is in a position to place the syllabus in an Islamic context.
The intake at Birchfield primary in Aston, north Birmingham, is 70 per cent Muslim (98 per cent Asian counting Hindu and Sikh pupils). It was recently placed in the "highly commended" category for all-round achievement under the Government's Charter Mark scheme.
The headteacher, Andrew Saunders said, "RE is taught within the Birmingham agreed syllabus but parents can choose to have this taught by an Islamic teacher or by the class teacher. RE takes place on joint themes for all religions within the school. There is a common plan which delivers a multi-faith element."
A number of Muslim children are continuing to be taught by the class teacher, along with non-Muslims, Mr Saunders added.
The separate RE lessons were offered in response to parents' concern that primary-age children may become confused if they are taught about other people's beliefs before they are fully aware of their own faith.
A parental spokesman and governor, Mohamed Mukadam, believes that multi-faith RE, with its dispassionate "spectator" view of faith, is only suitable for secondary-age pupils. He maintains that the Birchfield lessons are a radical departure from previous practice and that "children will be taught directly from the Koran".
Mr Mukadam says that the Muslim parents have exercised their right under the law to withdraw from the official RE lessons.
The school and the LEA disagree, saying arrangements at Birchfield are devised specifically to prevent division and withdrawal. "We do not believe that separating people is the way forward for religious education," said the head Andrew Saunders.