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Religious schools: do we really need them?

"Good intentions can mask woefully misguided ideas," said A.C. Grayling in The Times. Take the report from Muslim academics and educationalists launched by Baroness Uddin in the House of Lords last week. It calls for more publicly funded Muslim schools and for non-Muslim schools to adapt to the needs of Muslim pupils with prayer rooms, segregated PE lessons and "religious awareness" training for school staff. The report is "a response to the Government's well-intentioned desire to be accommodating towards all who live in these islands". Yet the effect of its prescriptions would actually be to damage social cohesion. If parents really want their children indoctrinated into their own beliefs at an early age, they should do it privately. State-funded education should be rational, factual and religiously neutral. Using public money to fund competing faiths is "laying the foundations for trouble".

The idea that faith schools are socially divisive is a "respectable fig leaf for Islamophobia", said Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian. They are nothing of the sort. My son's Catholic primary school is "a model of social cohesion". The pupils may all share the same faith, but they come from 40 different countries and speak 20 different languages. At Muslim schools, you see a similar melting pot of Afghan, Turkish, Indonesian and Ugandan children. In many inner-city areas, where "social capital is close to non­existent", faith schools foster a much-needed sense of community. Drawing them into the mainstream through state funding can only be a good thing.

The current situation is certainly unjust, said Polly Toynbee in the same paper. "One third of British state schools are faith schools", of which almost 7,000 are Christian, and just five Muslim, despite the fact that Britain now has more regular mosque attenders than C of E church-goers. The solution is not to fund more "religious apartheid", but to abolish funding for all faith schools. The riots in Bradford should have taught us the dangers of cultural segregation. Muslim schools are especially likely to foster sectarianism, said Joan Smith in The Independent on Sunday, because they do not share the Enlightenment values on which the rest of British society is built. Modern Islam is far more political than the mild-mannered old C of E: it has fierce ideas about women, sexual conduct and education, and no qualms about enforcing those ideas "even when they are in conflict with the values of the wider culture".


THE WEEK – 19 June 2004

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