One faith first

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Rome on the rates" was how Methodists and Baptists greeted the first state subsidies to church schools in 1902, a cry of opposition repeated for the 1944 Education Act. Unlike Catholics and Anglicans, the Nonconformists had no schools of their own and resented funding other people's religious prejudice. We now have "Islam on the rates". Claims that a Birmingham primary school offers Muslim RE lessons at the state's expense have been met with shock and concern.

In fact, no such religious education exists at Birchfield primary, although the normal multi-faith syllabus is taught by a qualified Muslim teacher, able to cater for the Islamic background of the pupils. But the arguments nonetheless point up the real anxiety many Muslim families feel about education in general, and religious education in particular. Parents in the west Yorkshire town of Batley have already withdrawn 1,500 primary pupils from RE lessons - as is their right under the law - and there is talk of co-ordinated action nationwide.

The central claim in Batley and in Birmingham is that the neutral, academic vision of religious education approved by the Government and its agencies is not suitable for small children who should, if anything, be given a grounding in their own faith. A diet of several religions is apt to confuse, say the parents. This is perhaps an understandable anxiety for an immigrant community and is, after all, what led Catholics and Jews to set up schools.

RE at secondary level is a very different matter: here it can be argued that a dispassionate approach is important if the subject is to exist at all. The Christian denominations only resolved their earlier disputes by accepting locally-written syllabuses which would not seek to preach or convert. The Professional Council for Religious Education has good grounds for fearing that a sectarian view of RE would see it further marginalised and eventually destroyed.

It is hard not to believe that recent developments have at their root the state's continued failure to support a single Muslim school. This is despite the 7,000 Christian and 27 Jewish schools funded by the Exchequer.

The Government can claim it had little historical choice about financing the Catholic and Anglican sectors, which in return provided essential buildings and teachers. But the existence of state-run Jewish schools leaves ministers little choice in equity but to back the Muslim claims as well; this in turn may help to dispel the undoubted feeling that they are a community under attack. For the present it is Muslims who have the best right to complain about Rome on the rates.

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