UK: How about secular schooling?

South Asia Citizen's Wire
A comment piece by Minette Marrin entitled, "Let us pray we have an end to faith schools."
An alarming image dominated the front pages of Friday's newspapers. It was a photograph of a slim British woman shrouded in black except for a flash of her skilfully painted eyes, and naked toes.
She was Aishah Azmi, the young Muslim teaching assistant in the now notorious veil dispute, on the day she won £1,100 for her hurt feelings. She might have been one of the emblematic figures of a medieval morality play, medieval as she looks. In contemporary Britain, she represents cultural chaos.

I'm not only thinking of the disjunction between the total veiling of extreme Islamic modesty, and the provocation of her eyes and toes. And I'm not questioning the woman's freedom in a free country to wear what she chooses, any more than I question other people's freedom to say how offensive they find it or their freedom to question her motives. What concerns me is her role as a teacher, and with faith schools in general.

Mrs Azmi was demanding the right as a Muslim to be fully veiled while working as an assistant in a Church of England junior school. One can hardly blame her, given the way that for decades multicultural orthodoxy has encouraged minorities to emphasise their cultural differences. All the same, it is quite absurd that a Muslim has been confidently attempting to impose a controversial Islamic convention in a Christian state school. It's true that Mrs Azmi has just lost her discrimination case - mainstream culture has not yet entirely lost its nerve - but her lawyers are ready to take it to the European Court of Justice.

What Mrs Azmi stands for, so to speak, is what many people fear about Muslims, no matter how tolerant they would like to feel. A woman shrouded in veils represents deliberate cultural separation, voluntary apartheid, a pre-Enlightenment religion and a view of relations between the sexes that the mainstream culture in this country can no longer accept and rejects in law. Such a woman is teaching and setting an example to young children in a Christian school. Her image points up with extreme urgency the problem of faith schools.

State-funded faith schools never used to be much of a problem, if only because people in this country tend to wear their faith lightly. Even the education department's definition of a religious school is faith-lite; it is merely a school with a religious character. Even those who would much prefer a secular system, as I would, still feel they owe a lot to the great ethical and aesthetic traditions of faith schools. And there's some evidence that religious state schools are better than others, both academically and pastorally.

But faith schools are a British anomaly. It can't be right that in a state education system there are some schools that are not open to everyone; that is divisive. However, the real reason for alarm now is the growth of Muslim schools.

There are more than 100 private Muslim schools and eight state-funded Muslim schools. Yet as David Bell, the then chief inspector of schools, said in January last year, the growth of Muslim faith schools runs the risk of undermining the coherence of British society. He worried that "many young people were being educated with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society". We "must not allow our recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation", he added.

That would strike most people as blindingly obvious, although it must have taken considerable courage to say it before the impact of the July bombs changed everything. Now it seems ministers are so aware of the dangers of sleepwalking to apartheid, in Trevor Phillips's phrase, that they can hardly stop talking about it. Yet what was Tony Blair's response last year, after the July bombings, to David Bell's cautious advice? It was not to put an end to new faith schools of any kind, as an anomaly which was no longer tolerable: it was to expand the numbers hugely.

He decided the government would offer voluntary aided status to 120-150 independent Muslim schools, bringing them in line with the existing 6,850 Christian and Jewish schools - in other words it will create masses of Muslim state schools. The heart sinks. How, in the name of integration, familiarity and trust, can it possibly be a good idea to have lots of state schools that are exclusively Muslim, with Muslim teachers, Muslim traditions and intense Islamic education?

Presumably realising that this might segregate Muslims more than ever, Alan Johnson announced that all new faith schools (for which read Muslim) would have to make a quarter of their places available to those outside their faith. At least they will sort of have to, by agreement or on demand. Then, almost immediately, Johnson hinted that all faith schools would have to do the same - to be fair to new Muslim schools.

Misguided tinkering leads to more misguided tinkering, and to glaring new injustices. It is plainly unjust to permit faith schools, and then exclude some of the children of the faithful, so as to shoehorn in some reluctant unbelievers. Quota is a dirty word. Jews and Christians will resent this just as much as Muslims. Do ministers seriously think they could make this work? No, clearly they don't, because in an amendment to the education bill before parliament, they are passing the buck for dealing with it to education authorities, empowering them to impose the 25% quota where necessary on new faith schools.

Nice one. Education authorities will also be responsible for urging schools to get together, arrange "twinning", exchange teachers and "promote community cohesion" - in other words for endless fuss, bother, travel and jobsworthy bureaucracy rather than education proper.

There is an alternative to all this meddling. It should be possible to agree that for various reasons, many of which are politically embarrassing, the time of state-funded faith schools is past. Faith is no better a criterion for attending or running a state school than race. No new ones should be created; the old ones should gradually lose their religious identity as many have done already and as they probably will do naturally. Religious indoctrination and observance don't belong in state schools, in a multifaith society, not any more.

by Minette Marrin, The Sunday Times, October 22, 2006