A 15-year battle for state assistance has been won by two Islamic schools, reports Dorothy Lepkowska
Almost 15 years after the Muslim community first enquired about state funding for its schools, success has been achieved.
At first, one application after another was turned down by the Government for reasons ranging from surplus places, to concerns about the curriculum, financial viability and inadequate school buildings.
But last week, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett approved grant-maintained status for two Muslim schools - the Islamia primary in London and Al Furqan primary in Birmingham.
Two Jewish schools, the Mathilda Marks Kennedy primary in Barnet, and an as yet unnamed primary in Hertfordshire, will also receive state funding.
Mr Blunkett said the schools had demonstrated that they "will comply with the statutory provisions governing all maintained schools, such as delivering the national curriculum and offering equal access to boys and girls.
"I am satisfied that the new schools should provide a good standard of education and will be financially viable," he added.
For the Muslims, the decision marks a milestone. Of the main religions in Britain, it is the only one to have been consistently rejected for public funding for its schools.
Ibrahim Hewitt, development officer for the Association of Muslim Schools, wrote his first letter of enquiry in 1983, and has been involved in negotiations since. He said: "Looking back on it now, we were very naive. The letter basically said that we would like state funding, but did not outline any proposals.
"It has been a long battle for equality, but it is an important victory in terms of civil rights. Muslims have finally been recognised as equal citizens."
Ministers have consistently denied allegations of discrimination against the Muslims, claiming the schools would be judged on their merits. They attributed the failure to secure state funding to educational and practical factors.
Whatever the reasons, successive secretaries of state were reluctant to break the mould. Mr Hewitt, however, believes that it was "prejudice pure and simple".
"The other arguments just did not stand up. The second time Islamia was turned down, it was apparently because of surplus places. Yet a local school, which was due to have been closed down for the same reasons, was allowed to opt out just a few weeks later.
"There are ideological reasons why this has taken so long. The international scene, as far as Muslims are concerned, is not pretty. There is Islamophobia in this country and a fear that fundamentalism will upset the status quo.
"We have an open-door policy in our schools and we invite anyone to come and see what we are doing."
COUNTDOWN TO FUNDING EQUALITY FOR MUSLIMS
December 1983 Muslim community writes to secretary of state enquiring about state funding for the Islamia primary school, in Brent, London. Response outlines criteria for consideration.
April 1986 Formal application for state funding is submitted to the then Department of Education and Science.
May 1990 Application is rejected.
May 1992 Muslims apply to the High Court for a judicial review of secretary of state's decision. He is ordered to reconsider his ruling.
August 1993 Secretary of state again rejects the application, on the grounds that there are surplus places in local schools.
September 1994 Parents of children at Al Furqan primary, Birmingham, vote to apply for grant-maintained status. School holds discussions with Funding Agency for Schools, the GM quango, and Birmingham education authority on its future.
March 1995 Discussions begin between Islamia school and the FAS with a view to applying for GM status.
January 1997 Proposals for GM status at Islamia and Al Furqan are published.
January 1998 Approval granted to both schools by Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett.
Mainstream Muslims, page 20