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Time to bring Muslims into the mainstream;Opinion

State funding for Islamic schools is a step forward for the whole country The news that two Muslim schools are to receive state funding will be met with both congratulations and criticism. But the time is now right to consider how such schools should be brought into the mainstream.

Over the past 10 years we have conducted a number of inquiries into Muslim schooling here and abroad. Within a British Muslim community of about 1.5 million, there are about 60 Muslim schools; a figure which has grown since the late 1980s from an estimated l5.

They tend to be supported by first-generation communities, keen to pass on their cultural heritage to their children; those wanting single-sex education at secondary level; and those for whom only an Islamic ethos permeating the curriculum is acceptable.

Muslim schools in this country have been established predominantly for girls. Often the curriculum has been narrow and the school environment cloistered. Many of the girls we have interviewed have concurred with these views, but they saw advantages in being educated in an atmosphere in which neither their gender nor their religion was an issue. Some compared this favourably with the religious bigotry they had experienced at state schools. We also found that they enjoyed a sense of identity which allowed them to be proud to be both British and Muslim.

Although Muslim schools have normally been placed within the independent sector, most do not fit comfortably into this category. Having to charge low, affordable fees, they are much more impoverished than the average private school. If the curriculum of Muslim schools is found to be unacceptably narrow, it is usually because of financial limitations. Nevertheless, they have struggled to follow national curriculum guidelines, and in some local authorities such as those in London, Leicester and Bradford, they are performing impressively in league tables.

Increased "Islamophobia" has not made their task easier. All too often "fundamentalism" has been associated with all Muslim communities. But there is huge differentiation between Muslims on grounds of race, socio-economic and linguistic backgrounds, just as in any other major religious grouping.

Even so, the campaign for a fairer school funding system - 7,000 Christian schools and 25 Jewish schools currently receive government money - has led to the creation of a grass-roots movement which has lobbied politicians at local and national level.

Funding now needs to be distributed on an equitable basis. Either we permit funding for all religious schools or we re-evaluate the religious clauses of the 1944 Education Act and dismantle the entire system.

Muslim schools are providing an educational option that is needed. We need to recognise their existence, regardless of personal views on separate or religious schooling.

We twin schools internationally, why not nationally, or regionally? Then all schools could have help and advice on the educational needs of Muslim children.

Even if the Government were to grant state funding to all Muslim schools, about 90 per cent of Muslim children would remain in the state-school system. Critics say extra state funding could lead to a rapid expansion of Muslim schools. This is unlikely. Where demand for Muslim schooling exists, it tends to be associated with particular communities and personal attitudes towards religious adherence.

The DFEE and education authorities' support services must now help Muslim schools to enable them to compete with schools that receive state funding.

Finally, the developing notion of social justice is more socially inclusive than the more narrow concept of equal opportunities as understood in the 1980s. The abandonment of equal opportunities rhetoric caused disillusionment, but now that we have a relatively new Government and are drawing ever closer to a new millennium, multiculturalism and equality should return to the centre of the political stage. Extending notions of social inclusion to Muslim schools means they can be brought into the mainstream, and the marginalisation of their children can be reduced.

Marie Parker-Jenkins is professor of education at Derby University, Dr Kaye Haw is a research fellow at the school of education, Nottingham University, and Barrie Irving is a lecturer at the College of Guidance Studies, Kent.

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