Loosen religion's grip on state schools

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Should we admit Muslim schools to the state sector? The arguments for doing so appear powerful. Increasingly, Muslim parents send their children to private schools, some lavishly financed from Saudi Arabia. While Ofsted inspects such schools, and the Government can withdraw registration, controls are less tight than in the state sector. Muslim communities are in danger of withdrawing further from mainstream British life. Even children who go to state schools may attend madrassas run by Muslim clerics, at evenings and weekends. Over these, Ofsted has no sway. If young Muslims attend a faith school that guides religious belief into the proper channels and gives them a secure identity, it is argued, they are less likely to listen to what the tabloids call "mad mullahs".

Muslims take their religion more seriously than most westerners do; it is often also a badge of cultural and political identity. It is no use wishing this away. We have to come to terms with it as best we can. The last thing we want is a Muslim "state within a state", with its own schools, welfare arrangements, banks and laws. That is why we must embrace Islam within the state sector, putting it on an equal footing with Christianity.

As an atheist, I am reluctant to give up so easily. Ministers are forever talking about the British "way of life" and the need for immigrants to conform to it. They fail to acknowledge that the most distinctive thing about modern Britain is its secularism. The British are the most godless people on the planet. The majority do not think of a deity from one day to the next and even Church of England communicants usually have other things on their minds. If clerics try to tell us how to behave, we show them the door. If many Christian clerics had had their way, we would still be imprisoning homosexuals, banning abortion, forbidding divorce and keeping women in the home. In Britain, secular opinion has led social change; the churches have slowly adapted.

Now, under our most God-fearing premier for a hundred years, we are in danger of going into reverse. We should have more confidence in the secular approach, not to surrender ground to clerical interests. Religion should be studied because of its enormous influence on human culture, history, philosophy and politics. State schools, supported by taxes, should be secular in spirit. They should not nurture the belief systems of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and the rest any more than they should nurture astrology.

We cannot continue to support Christian faith schools while denying the equivalents to minorities. Ministers should declare that no new faith schools will be eligible for taxpayer support and add that support for existing schools will be phased out. The logic of supporting faith schools is that we end up with something close to racial segregation, compounded by the religious divisions that have scarred Northern Ireland. There would be an outcry from sections of the middle classes, who have benefited from the quasi-selective nature of faith schools, but I believe ministers could weather it.

The few British Muslims tempted into terrorism are motivated almost entirely by the Iraq war. Many have adopted Islam only because they feel unwelcome in our society. These are secular issues, with secular solutions.

Religion in general, and clerics in particular, have nothing useful to say about them. This is the message we should be sending to young Muslims, and to allow religious belief to make further inroads into the state school system is to send entirely the opposite message.

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