Breaking the tenets of multi-faith RE

Muslim parents want their children to be taught Islam separately. But there are fears that it may prove too divisive, says Simon Midgley
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Muslim parents who have withdrawn their sons and daughters from religious education lessons in Batley, Yorkshire, because they consider the teaching to be insufficiently Islamic are investigating the possibility of hiring a Muslim primary schoolteacher to instruct their children in religious education.

They are considering following the example of a Birmingham inner-city primary school which from January this year hired a Muslim scholar, who is also a qualified primary teacher, to teach Muslim children RE in separate classes from children of other faiths.

Last week representatives of the Batley parents visited Mohamed Mukadam, the Muslim parent-governor at Birchfield School in Aston, Birmingham, who was instrumental in pressing for separate RE lessons for Muslim pupils. They discussed how they might follow Birchfield's example.

Two and a half years ago Muslim parents at Birchfield, where 70 per cent of the 600 pupils are Muslim, became increasingly unhappy that their children were having to attend multi-faith religious assemblies.

After a concerted campaign, the Muslim parents managed to persuade the local Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) that the school should be allowed to stage separate religious Islamic assemblies that also emphasised the key moral tenets of all the major faiths.

To stage separate assemblies, the school hired a Muslim primary teacher, which also enabled it to offer parents the choice of having their children taught RE in lessons given by a non-Muslim class teacher or in lessons taught by a Muslim teacher.

Government guidelines require schools to offer lessons that educate children about all the major world faiths. Whether Birchfield has circumvented the guidelines on multi-faith RE and introduced lessons by stealth that not only predominantly teach one religion, but also inculcate faith in that religion, is the subject of continuing controversy.

Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, says that the school is not breaking the law or going against government guidelines on teaching RE. Muslim and non-Muslim RE teaching at the school, he adds, is taught according to the Birmingham Agreed Syllabus, which requires instruction about other religions, including Christianity.

All that is happening, he says, is that parents within the local Muslim community can opt for the Agreed Syllabus being taught by a teacher who shares their Muslim faith.

Mr Mukadam sees things slightly differently, however. He thinks the current system of RE in many state schools is failing Muslim children by teaching that all faiths have equal value. "In the primary school let us teach their own faith first. Once they have confidence and a good understanding of that, then they can learn about other religions in the secondary years."

He says that once children have grasped the fundamentals of Islam, the Koran can then be used to reinforce the shared fundamental moral tenets of other faiths like Christianity and Judaism. Children, he adds, will learn moral rules such as tolerance only if they already have a strong faith based on one religion.

Fred Naylor, secretary of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education (Pace), a right-wing pressure group campaigning for parental freedom of choice in education, hopes that eventually all Muslim children throughout Britain will be taught in separate RE classes.

He believes the Batley parents will follow the example of the Birchfield parents. Multi- faith education, he thinks, does not teach children to believe in any one faith.

Religious education professionals are worried that RE could disappear as a subject if it is seen as a way of inculcating faith. Promoting one faith rather than helping children to understand people with other religions would, they fear, be socially divisive.

Mr Brighouse is concerned that people with strong religious views, whether Christian or Muslim, may be publicly misrepresenting and exaggerating what is happening at Birchfield. In his view, the Agreed Syllabus is simply being taught by a Muslim primary teacher who has the confidence of the local Muslim community.