New schools, old dogmas

20th October 2006 at 01:00
* Religious schools face problem of segregation

* Muslim dress is now seen as a political statement

* Lobby forms to end compulsory prayers in assembly

With neighbouring state Muslim and Sikh primaries opening by 2008, Slough is a shining example of the new faith school world the Government has encouraged.

But the Berkshire town is also the perfect illustration of why ministers'

efforts to prevent their policy from creating further division is likely to make very little difference, at least in the short term.

The two schools, less than half a mile apart, will be open to pupils from other communities. But both admit that the places they offer them are unlikely to be filled. They are the product of a policy of state schools for all faiths that Labour has been pushing since 1998. Religious schools are popular with parents, went the argument. They have an ethos that helps pupils succeed and who were ministers to deny the benefits enjoyed by Christians to other religions?

All along campaigners warned this was likely to lead to greater segregation. Now it seems their fears are being listened to.

This July, David Blunkett, education secretary in 1998, admitted he was uncomfortable with the original policy and this week his latest successor, Alan Johnson, appeared to have similar doubts. Mr Johnson said that to prevent the segregation seen in Northern Irish schools he proposed to allow local authorities to insist that a quarter of places in new faith schools were open to pupils of other or no faith.

In fact, the Church of England got there first, announcing earlier this month it would reserve at least 25 per cent of places for non-Christian children in its all new schools. But the CofE has long catered for all communities in many of its schools. More telling is what has happened largely unnoticed in Slough.

Khalsa primary opens in September 2007 to cater for the town's Sikhs. As well as the national curriculum it will offer its 450 pupils lessons in Sikh faith and culture.

But when it opens its admissions this autumn a fifth of places will be offered first to children from non-Sikh backgrounds.

Nick Candola, chair of governors, said there had always been a desire to create an inclusive school. However, he expects that the demand from non-Sikh pupils will be no higher than the 5 per cent that attend the country's only other state-funded Sikh school, Guru Nanak in Hillingdon, west London.

From 2008, just down the road, there will be a Muslim primary going even further out of its way to attract a mixed intake.

Slough Islamic school has decided to offer a quarter of its places to non-Muslims. Any that apply will be able to wear a conventional non-Islamic uniform and be excused from Islamic RE lessons to study their own faith.

But Zafar Ali, project director for the new school, expects it will struggle to hold on to the non-Muslim pupils attending the secular infant and junior schools it replaces.

"I would not be surprised if initially a lot of the non-Muslim parents decide to put their children elsewhere as there will be people doing everything to paint the school in a negative light," he said.

With at least 1,000 expected to apply for the 630-place school there will be no shortage of Muslim pupils to take up the slack. And he admits its initial intake may well be 100 per cent Islamic. The signs are the Government's quotas will make little difference for now because the lack of demand from other communities.

But long term Mr Ali hopes that if media hysteria about Islam dies down and the school can convince the community of its multi-faith ethos and achieve good exam results then there is hope.

As Mr Candola said: "If a school tops the league table then people will want to send their children there."

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