Marie Parker-Jenkins hails the Australian approach to faith-based schools. G'day, mate" is a common enough greeting in Australia but not what I was expecting as I entered one of the country's Muslim schools. The 15-year-old pupil who greeted me showed me into the building and introduced me to other teenagers who, at first sight, appeared more Aussie than Islamic. In the background I could hear a class belting out the national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair". My assumptions were to be frequently challenged as I visited similar institutions as part of my research into "Islam Down Under".
Islam in Australia can be traced back to Indonesian explorers and Afghan camel traders, but sizeable communities are a post-Second World War phenomenon.
As in Britain they have established their own schools because of dissatisfaction with what is on offer at state schools and the issue of cultural maintenance. Supporters of Muslim schools tend to be first and second-generation immigrants, eager to retain their heritage and customs. For Muslim converts in both countries, Islamic schools provide an environment where their religious values can be transmitted to their children. In some communities, accordingly, converts have provided financial and managerial leadership in setting up Islamic schools.
Core values derived from Islam and the Koran infuse Muslim schools in Australia, as in Britain, with the promotion of an Islamic ethos throughout the school. Regulations govern school dress, especially for girls, daily prayers and religious obligations. Likewise the curriculum is scrutinised to ensure that it is not offensive or unacceptable to the local community and that it contains an appropriate Islamic dimension.
Muslim communities in Britain come from a number of different parts of the Islamic world, including Pakistan, the Middle East, Kenya and Malaysia. Conversely, Australian Muslims are predominantly from the Lebanon and Turkey, with others from Yugoslavia and Indonesia. Another difference between the two countries is that ethnic minorities make up only 7 per cent of the population in Britain, while one in three people in Australia is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. In Australia, therefore, immigrants carry considerable political clout. Statistically, Australian Muslims number around 220,000 out of a population of 17 million, or 1.3 per cent. The British figure is estimated at 1.5 million Muslims out of a population of 57 million, or 2.6 per cent.
Where the majordifference lies, however, is in funding: in Australia, Muslim schools get public money. It has not been easy to obtain in some instances, and long battles have been fought in some communities over planning permission for an Islamic school. In general, however, the principle has been accepted in Australia that primary and secondary schools with an Islamic ethos can receive government funds, just as other faith-based groups or private schools have done since 1972.
There are five Islamic schools in Sydney, with a similar number in Melbourne; and enrolment ranges from a few dozen to more than a thousand. The schools are growing relatively slowly, one reason being that, with one or two exceptions, parents feel the Islamic schools have yet to prove themselves academically.
Schools in Australia may apply for funding once they are registered. Registration involves such things as an inspection of the physical plant and school facilities. I was present at the inspection of one school, where it was clear the inspectors were sensitive to the raison d'etre of the school, but understandably firm on matters of health and safety.
Having cleared the inspection hurdles, a school is registered by the state Ministry of Education. It is now eligible for funding, both state and federal. Potentially this can be up to 100 per cent of running costs, with access to subsidised loans for buildings and extensions. The more successful a school is in proving a demand, and the more successfully it attracts pupils, the more money it can apply for.
There are lessons here for Britain. The issue of equality before the law is satisfied in Australia, as suitably qualified Muslim schools gain access to funding. The government thus sidesteps accusations of discriminatory practice. Meanwhile Britain is left with the increasingly untenable position of financing thousands of Christian schools, and more than 20 Jewish ones, but so far no Muslim schools. This despite repeated attempts by Islamic academic institutions, some of whom have achieved impressive examination results, to win state funding in Britain.
No doubt the issue will rise up as a general election approaches and politicians seek the ethnic vote. One possibility is to withdraw funding from all denominational schools and instead move towards the concept of a common school for all children. While the present system prevails, however, there needs to be equality in distributing public money to religious-based schools. We could do worse than consider the Australian model. Australia appears to have faced up to the reality of a multi-faith society and has embraced a broader, more inclusive concept of social justice. They have recognised the demand for Muslim schools; brought them into the mainstream; and diminished the marginalisation of the children who attend them.
Dr Marie Parker-Jenkins teaches at the School of Education, University of Nottingham. Her latest book is Children of Islam: A Teacher's Guide to Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils, Trentham Books.