Education: Defending a change of faith: Moves to alter the Christian nature of school assemblies could lead to segregation. Haydn Price reports

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The Independent Online
A running battle over traditional assemblies in two Birmingham primary schools where Muslim pupils predominate is drawing to a close with one school bringing in a Muslim cleric to provide for some pupils and another dropping the broadly Christian nature of assembly.

The row, which has split the local communities, broke out earlier this year when a large number of Muslim parents at the city's Birchfield and Canterbury Cross schools demanded separate Islamic services to replace their children's normal assemblies.

Some 200 Muslim children were withdrawn from the assemblies at the two schools but the schools' governors, the majority of whom are Muslim, refused to meet the parents' demands. They felt it would be detrimental to the pupils' wider social education to abandon normal assemblies.

During the summer term, the governors at Canterbury Cross reconsidered and the head, Anne Dent, asked the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education for permission to lift the requirement, expected of all schools, that assemblies are of a wholly or partly Christian nature.

This has now been approved and the school can legally hold assemblies based around different faiths, thus avoiding the need to hold separate acts of Islamic worship.

Governors at Birchfield have followed suit and the local advisory council should reach a decision soon. Meanwhile a Muslim cleric is providing separate acts of worship for a small minority of the Muslim pupils.

Head teachers and governors at both Canterbury Cross and Birchfield schools have repeatedly refused to comment on the assembly issue.

A spokesperson for the local education authority said the governors had 'decided in the interest of continued harmony to reflect the wishes of all parents, including a minority who wanted separate acts of worship'. The spokesperson added: 'All are pleased that such a constructive compromise was reached.'

Nearly three-quarters of the schools' pupils are from Muslim backgrounds.

Parents claim their demands for an alternative form of collective worship is justifiable, given the high proportion of children from non-Christian families.

Outside the school gates of Birchfield, veiled women speak of their frustration and anger over the issue. One mother said: 'The Jews have been allowed separate services at other schools, why are we any different?

Muslims are a majority at this school, so why shouldn't we be allowed separate worship?'

The school's minority non- Muslim population has expressed irritation at the demands. One parent of Indian descent said: 'We have come to Britain to live. If we want the education, we have to accept the assemblies and other British ways. They cannot just expect an English school to change just because they are in a majority at it.'

Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's director of education, said the decision of the two schools to seek permission from the local advisory council to hold multi-faith assemblies was good news - a victory for consensus rather than confrontation.

But at Birmingham University, Professor John Hull, editor of the British Journal of Religious Education, fears the row will cause educational and social fragmentation. He says: 'If we start dividing our schools on religious lines, it can only lead to isolation and separation.' He believes the latest move is a 'regrettable' step towards segregation.

Mohammed Mukadam, a spokesman for the parents, dismisses the professor's view. He argues: 'The children need to know their own faith. No one would claim a Christian child who practised their faith was intolerant of Muslims.'

(Photograph omitted)