Muslim bid for non-believers
A muslim charity is bidding to run the first Islamic faith school for children who are not followers of the religion, The TES has learned.
The Al Habib Islamic Education and Cultural Centre said that 50 per cent of places at a new primary school, which serves a predominantly non-Muslim area, would be for local pupils.
The plan marks a significant development for minority faith schools, which have traditionally been set up to deal with overwhelming demand from pupils from one religion.
The Al Habib charity has put in a bid to run a 420-pupil primary school in Swindon, Wiltshire, due to be built at a cost of Pounds 7 million. The charity says there is demand for the school from the Muslim community in the Swindon area. It is also claims there will be demand from non-Muslim families in the school's immediate catchment area.
If it goes ahead, an hour of the timetable each day would be dedicated to studying Arabic and the Koran. Non-Muslim pupils would be able to be exempted from the lessons, but it is hoped that the majority would choose to stay in class to gain more "insight" into the religion, an Al Habib spokesman said.
"The school will follow the national curriculum and have teachers from different faiths," the spokesman said.
"We will be there to provide guidance in religious teaching, but we want pupils to understand about all faiths, not just Islam. It would run in a very similar way to other faith schools."
A number of private Islamic schools have now joined the state sector. These include Madani High School in Leicester, which became a state school last year, and the Iqra Primary School in Brixton, south London, which joined the state sector earlier this term.
Al Habib is using competition rules to go head-to-head with Swindon Council over who should run a new school.
The local authority says that all of the places are needed for children in its immediate vicinity, not for Muslim pupils from further away.
Garry Perkins, the Conservative cabinet member for children services at Swindon borough council, said the number of Muslim families living around the proposed school was in single figures. Council figures estimate there are only 163 primary-aged Muslim pupils in the whole of Swindon.
"I do not believe there is even strong demand for the school from the Muslim community in Swindon," said Mr Perkins. "Many are happy with our already diverse schools."
The area where the school is proposed has grown significantly with new housing. Mr Perkins said that demand was so high for a school there that non-Muslim parents would send their children there if that was their only option.
Keith Porteous Wood, the director of the National Secular Society, criticised the plans, saying the school would be a "disaster" for community cohesion.
"If successful, there will be pressure on Muslim children, who are contributing to diversity in other schools, to go there," he said.
"I have great sympathy for local parents. A lot of them would not want a Christian school, and far less a Muslim one.
"The fact Al Habib are even bidding for this school sets a worrying precedent," he added.
The Government paved the way for an expansion in minority faith schools last year, when it published its Faith in the System document. This praised the impact of faith schools and acknowledged that there were small numbers of minority faith schools compared to the total population.
The Swindon case has now been referred to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, which expects to make a final decision in January.