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Muslim schools in Britain?

22 October 2007

Nasar Meer argues that Muslim schools can improve – not undermine – social cohesion.

There are currently only seven state-funded Muslim schools in Britain – compared with more than 4,700 Church of England schools, 2,100 Catholic schools, 37 Jewish and 28 Methodist schools that are all state-funded – yet their place within the British education system remains a hotly debated issue. Indeed, the Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, has declared that separate Muslim schools ‘do not fit pupils for their lives as Muslims in modern Britain’.

Muslim children of school age comprise nearly six per cent (500,000) of the school population, while Muslims overall represent only three per cent (1.8 million) of the UK’s population. But it is important to note that Muslim pupils come from diverse ethnic backgrounds which, alongside the Pakistani (40%) and Bangladeshi (20%) contingent, include Turkish, Turkish-Cypriot, Middle Eastern, East Asian, African-Caribbean, Indian or other South Asians, those of mixed race or heritage, and a not insignificant number (1%) of White converts and Eastern Europeans. Despite these different ways of being Muslim, there are a number of reasons why many parents of all backgrounds want more Muslim schools.

First, there is the desire to incorporate more faith-based principles into an integrated education system so that the ‘whole person’ can be educated in an Islamic environment. Muslims also want to see more aspects of Islamic culture embedded within the teaching and ethos of school curricula than is normally offered within a Christian-European tradition. In addition, they would like schools to provide some specialist training in the Islamic religious sciences. This is motivated by the desire to have more British-trained theologians who can discuss theological issues within the context of living in Britain. Second, there is a desire for the development of ‘safe’ environments for post-pubescent children. In this regard, single-sex schools appeal to Muslim parents in the same way that they do to Catholic parents. Finally, there is concern over the lower educational attainment of some Muslim boys. For example, in 2000 only 30 per cent of boys with Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic origin achieved five GCSEs at grades A*–C, compared with 50 per cent of the national population. It is argued that this could reflect the sense of alienation and disaffection felt by many young male Muslims at school. There is a belief that greater accommodation of religious and cultural difference will help resolve this low achievement.

But what of the arguments against Muslim schools? These range from a principled philosophical opposition to all faith schooling, to more focused arguments concerning the nature of Muslim schools and their potential impact on social cohesion in Britain. The former position accuses all faith schooling of ‘indoctrination’ and implanting beliefs in the child that prevents them from being autonomous in thought. This argument can be met in a number of ways. One is to recognise that unless children have a sufficient depth of understanding about religion, they will not be able to exercise valid consent, thus the curriculum and environment of the religious school may be essential to the achievement of a level of under-standing that makes informed consent (and thus autonomy) possible.

'Delayed assimilation' might enable Muslims to gain the confidence and security they need.

A much stronger objection, however, is to point to the degree of bad faith central to the charge of indoctrination against religious faith schools, specifically because secular schools have their own ideological assumptions about the ideal society, the ideal system of schooling and the meaning of human existence. While these assumptions may not be formally codified into a curriculum subject designated ‘secular education’ as an alternative to ‘religious education’, they characteristically permeate the and culture of state-provided secular schools and form a crucial part of the ‘hidden curriculum’.

With regard to the impact of Muslim schools on social cohesion, Muslim educators argue that one of the most effective ways to pass on knowledge about different people is through academic teaching, rather than via the naïve laissez-faire approach which assumes that mere exposure and contact with ‘difference’ will resolve prejudices. Contrary to impressions that might be gained from some OFSTED reports, the curricula of most Muslim schools proactively supports tolerance, universal dignity and worth, irrespective of ethnic, religious, or racial difference.

One argument that supports Muslim schools as a way forward towards social integration is that they could encourage a type of ‘delayed assimilation’. Such a process might enable Muslims to gain the confidence and security they need as a minority struggling to reconcile their identity with broader citizenship imperatives. This means that majority groups and the government will also have to do some of the work in accommodating Muslims and not simply expect them to do all the running. This is a sentiment shared by David Konstant, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds, who has stated that the effect of separate Catholic schools has been integration, rather than fragmentation because ‘having our own school within the state system helped us to move out of our initial isolation and to become more confident and self-assured’.

If Muslim constituencies are granted the provisions for Muslim schools, it could contribute to the bringing together of faith commitments and citizenship requirements within a public arena that has historically included and incorporated many other religious minorities.

Nasar Meer / Sociology

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