Mosque's bid for funding tests new policy on religious schools

War on Terrorism: Education
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The Independent Online

The Government is facing a test of its commitment to increase the number of faith-based state schools, as the first application for funding since the plans were announced was submitted by an Islamic school.

The submission to Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, was made by a 340-pupil primary schoolrun privately at the Balham Mosque in south London. It comes at a time when some ministers are privately expressing growing concern over Tony Blair's eagerness to expand the number of religious schools because they fear it will lead to greater segregation between ethnic groups and religions.

The Balham Islamic school wants to expand due todemand for places and has earmarked a former school site near the mosque as its premises. Iqbal Sacrani, chairman of the board of governors at the school, said: "There is quite a demand from parents within the community for places and parental choice is one of the elements the government has stressed."

"We operate fully the national curriculum and have an admissions policy whereby we will admit both Muslim and non-Muslim pupils," he said, adding that pupils will be taught different religions.

Only a handful of non-Muslim pupils have been enrolled at the school but Mr Sacrani said more would come if the school was granted state aid.

If the school, whichcharges £1,500 per year, is granted state funding, it would become the fourth state-backed Muslim school in the country.

Mr Sacrani pointed out that more than 5,000 Christian and 300 Jewish schools have been granted state aid. He said: "It is said that faith schools are a ghetto because they lead to greater segregation but that is the wrong message to give out. Faith schools shouldn't restrict their admissions to the one faith. We feel that is important."

The Government announced a commitment to the creation of more religious schools in its White Paper on the future of education published last month. It said it also wanted them to take on a role in taking over failing schools and turning them round.

This week's Labour party conference, however, was told of growing concern over the plans to increase the number of religious schools. Teachers' union leaders, Labour Party activists and backbench MPs all urged a rethink of government policy in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the US and riots earlier this summer in Oldham and Bradford, where existing religious schools have been criticised for only taking in pupils of their own faith.

Other MPs cited the demonstrations outside the Holy Cross primary school in Northern Ireland as a warning.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said:"If you really want to bring together the different ethnic minorities, you have to bring them together within schools."

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