Islamic schools: putting children in a class of their own

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The Independent Online
The struggle for publicly funded Islamic schools has been long and bitter. They were among the first demands of self-consciously Muslim politicians, and they have been one that the British Establishment has been most reluctant to concede. Fear of an alien ideology inculcated at taxpayers' expense has been a powerful motive. Other fears have included the idea that girls would be disadvantaged in an Islamic system.

None the less, there are 43 Muslim private secondary schools around the country, including one in Worcester; and one or two seem certain now to qualify for voluntary-aided status. There are also several hundred supplementary schools where Muslim children study the Koran for two hours in the evening.

Feversham College, an all-girl Muslim secondary school in Bradford, is housed in buildings abandoned by the city council, and hopes to move to a larger site and inherit the buildings of a former Catholic school.

The headmistress of the school, Nusrat Bashir, who was educated at a Catholic school, says: "We are educating the children to take their place in society: they are part of their community first of all, but also part of a wider community. First of all we need to make them aware of what makes the foundation of their identity, and that is Islam. As Muslim women, they need to understand their relationship with their creator, and then with their fellow human beings, whether they go on to higher education, get married, or whatever."

Many of the teachers at Feversham College are non-Muslim. This has caused some friction with the parents, who pay pounds 500 a year in fees. Some parents disapprove of the fact that Christianity is taught in the school by a Catholic and that the staff are not required to wear headscarves, as the pupils must. They object to lessons on evolution - even though the pupils are taught only that some people believe it.

"If the vast majority of people think that evolutionary theory based on Darwin is indisputable, then it is very worrying," said the chairman of the school's board, Akram Khan-Cheema, a former inspector of schools for the local education authority. "We must help the world," he explained.

He was involved with the school from the start. "In 1984 there were several hundred Muslim girls under the age of 16 who were not attending school. Some of them were certainly being kept at home illegally. People within the community were saying: `Your schools are not good enough. Their discipline, ethos and non-Islamic values are not acceptable. Unless you do something about this, we will not send our daughters to school'."

Nor were the early Muslim private schools any more acceptable to the state authorities. An early HMI report on the Feversham College stated: "Few of the girls, if any, can be said to be performing to the extent of their abilities. Indeed, the school has no discernible methods of assessing their abilities."

Since then, despite continuing money troubles, the school's performance over the whole of the national curriculum has greatly improved. It is now regarded, along with Yusuf Islam's Islamia school in Brent, north London, as one of the two best Muslim schools in the country.