Faith in the system

Are religious schools giving parents more choice and children a better education, or are they creating fractured communities? Caroline Haydon reports from Slough
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The Independent Online

Faith schools are back in the news. After a period in which little has been said about their rapidly rising numbers, the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, suddenly warned last week that too much diversity might threaten the coherence of British society. He mentioned Muslim schools. But others, too, are claiming their right to a cultural and religious school environment.

Faith schools are back in the news. After a period in which little has been said about their rapidly rising numbers, the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, suddenly warned last week that too much diversity might threaten the coherence of British society. He mentioned Muslim schools. But others, too, are claiming their right to a cultural and religious school environment.

In Slough, two mosques, a Hindu temple and two Sikh gurdwaras, now sit alongside Christian churches, testimony to the fact that the town is now home to the highest proportion of Muslims and Hindus in the South-East, and of Sikhs in the whole country. And, in 2006, the doors will open on the first purpose-built voluntary-aided Sikh primary school in the country, the result of a three-year campaign by the 10,000-strong local Sikh community to provide schooling that boosts its own values alongside the normal curriculum.

The passionate conviction of the Sikh community that this will add to Slough's rich diversity rather than lead, over time, to segregation is not always shared in the town, particularly by those who foresee more faith schools to follow. At the moment, the Muslim community does not have its own school. Different communities co-exist pretty happily alongside one another, in a more haphazardly mixed fashion than in other more segregated towns.

At Ramgharia Gurdwara, where a colossal painted warrior on horseback dominates the gateway, the Sikh School Trust spokesman Jaswinder Singh puts his case. "We want this school so that the identity, religion, culture and language of our young children will be protected," he says. "But we didn't want to build it by stepping on other people's sentiments. This is nothing to do with segregation or forcing religion down other people's throats - at least 20 per cent of the places will be kept for children of other faiths, and they will be able to opt out of Sikh prayers as well. The Sikh religion is inclusive - it doesn't say that it's superior or inferior to any other." Twenty per cent of the school's total of 420 pupils is 84 children - a larger contingent than might be expected in a faith school, and a target to which the Trust says that it is committed.

There are two main motivators in the Sikh community's drive to build the school, the force of which is apparent in the fact they will have to raise 10 per cent - £600,000 - towards the cost themselves (£10,000 has already been donated by a Muslim businessman, proving, they say, that the school has cross-faith support). One is that other congregations have a choice and can attend their own faith schools - the Sikhs want to do the same. And the other, argued with passion, is a feeling that the British education system has often failed their children.

"The drive that made many Sikhs so successful when they first came to Britain is missing from the next generation," says Singh. "We thought that the school system would take care of that, but we were wrong. It did take care of the academic side of things, but not the rest. Now, for instance, there are more Sikh youngsters involved in crime than the generation that came here ever imagined possible. When I read reports about a 20-year-old Sikh rapist, I just cannot believe it. There is no hidden agenda here. We just want to build our children a foundation of core values - education has to sit on top of some sort of value system. After that they can make up their own mind - there won't, after all, be a secondary school for them to go to."

Not everyone I meet at the community centre is in favour - even the Trust admits that some Sikhs disagree with the school, while quoting 96 per cent in favour in consultation exercises. At the community centre next to the Gurdwara, Satvinderjit Sukham, picking up his five-year-old son Gurdeep Singh, who has been attending after-school Punjabi classes for the first time, has a purely pragmatic view. A former local grammar-school boy born in Slough, he is torn between his responsibility to educate his children in their culture, beliefs and history, and a fear that those things become so enshrined that his children won't succeed in Western terms. So, he will wait to hear more about the curriculum and treat the new school like any other option, deciding on merit.

While parents wait for the school to be built, around 80 Sikh children are bused, at their parents' expense, the eight miles to Hillingdon, where they go to the Guru Nanak Primary School in Hayes. The Guru Nanak, whose head also oversees a secondary school on the same site, was Britain's first independent Sikh school, given voluntary-aided status five years ago. After a rocky start - the primary suffered from a sinking reputation and is still on special measures - both schools are building up their reputation, with the secondary now second in nationwide league tables for improving pupils' performance. The deputy head Greg Hall's ringing endorsement of the ethos of the school - "The parents value education, and a critical mass of very highly committed children drives up standards" - betrays why there might be some concern back in Slough. If high-achieving children are taken away, will Slough schools suffer?

Margaret Lenton, the head of Slough Grammar School for 16 years, thinks that they will. "I would regret a separation of the Sikh community from the whole," she says. "They are an asset to any school. But the educational system has to be seen as a whole - if it is split, it means that the whole is diminished. We need cross-fertilisation in schools rather than pupils contributing in individual schools. And some Sikh parents will face a dilemma - do they want a British or a Sikh education?" Lenton believes further fracturing will be unfortunate for the town, and she is sceptical about the ability of regulatory machinery to enforce national-curriculum rules in faith schools. The Sikh School Trust is adamant that the new school will differ from non-faith schools in only two respects - the children will learn Punjabi, which will save them lengthy after-school classes, and there will be an emphasis on Sikh heritage and culture.

There was a mixed message, too, from the Slough School Organisation Committee, which had to decide whether the town should accept a new school. It failed to agree unanimously whether the school should be built, the Schools Group on the committee opposing it on the grounds that the town had a surplus of primary places. The matter had to be shunted off to the Government's Schools Adjudicator, who noted the objections, including some about local traffic, but decided it had enough support to go ahead.

That, according to Fiona Mactaggart, the town's MP and Race Equality minister at the Home Office, was the right decision. She publicly supports the school, believing it unnecessary to bus small children to Hillingdon, but primarily because she thinks there should be inter-faith equality of opportunity. "There are more worshippers in the Gurdwara sometimes than any of our churches, but those who go to the churches do have schools and these people do not," she says. "The Sikhs don't want a school that is cut off, and we have to provide a range of choice."

The Government's new idea of promoting "extended" schools, making their sites a focal point for family and community services (an idea believed to be strongly backed by the new Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly) is a way, she believes, of keeping faith schools plugged into the community.

None of the main three parties now dissents from the view that there should be state-funded faith schools. Liberal Democrats agonise most about divided communities, but say minority faiths must not be denied the opportunity of running their own schools, provided that they teach the national curriculum and have a fair admissions policy - a far cry from the days when the education spokesman Phil Willis said: "The product of a selective, faith-based, exclusive education system is graphically illustrated in Belfast." That was the summer after the riots in Oldham and Bradford.

In Slough, there were condemnations of the recent violence of some Sikh demonstrators over Gurpreet Kaur Bhatt's play Behzti in Birmingham, amid concerns that now all Sikhs would be branded as extremists as a result. Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, however, still sees the long-term implications for our cities if we continue to expand faith schools in the state sector, as "terrifying - and to the disadvantage of all communities", citing visions of children being bussed past each other to their different schools. The Slough school, of course, seeks to end the need for busing. But, more importantly, it hopes to offer its children a better education.