Mohammed knocks at classroom door

Muslim parents are demanding state-backed schools run on Islamic principles, and now their hopes are rising, writes Fran Abrams
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The Independent Online
YUSUF ISLAM, formerly the pop star Cat Stevens, has been trying for more than 10 years to get state funding for the Muslim school he founded. Now, at last, he glimpses success. Tomorrow, architects from the official Funding Agency for Schools visit the Islamia school in north London, to check whether its buildings and facilities make it worthy of state support.

If the school is successful - the final decision rests with Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education - Islamia, with 300 pupils and a waiting list of 1,000, will be the first state-supported Muslim school, enjoying similar status to hundreds of Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. For many Muslim parents, the day when their right to such schools is accepted cannot come soon enough. Their growing assertiveness over how their children are educated has stretched their relations with secular schools to breaking point.

As the new year began, 1,500 Muslims in West Yorkshire refused to send their children to the Christian assemblies which the law demands. A few weeks later it was revealed that a Birmingham primary school was offering Muslim religious education after the withdrawal of most of its pupils from the Christian-dominated lessons.

Conflicts such as these are bound to multiply. Britain has about 400,000 Muslim children of school age and, according to some estimates, there could be a million by 2000. Today's Muslim parents are demanding that schools adapt to accommodate their beliefs, and they are doing so with a force and a confidence that their own parents lacked.

Their requests extend beyond the traditional battlefields of religious education and assemblies into the teaching of subjects such as art, music and biology. Even the mixing of boys and girls in the playground is questioned.

Cecil Knight, head of Small Heath school, a mixed comprehensive in Birmingham where 96 per cent of pupils are Muslims, says parents are much quicker to complain than they used to be. "We have a generation of Muslims who have come through the education system and are much more competent at articulating the aims and desires of the Muslim community," he says. "They are not willing to compromise to the same degree."

When he was responsible for writing a multi-faith RE syllabus for Birmingham, 25 years ago, he could find only three or four Muslim teachers to help him in the whole city. Now he has six, plus two classroom assistants, at his school alone.

His girls and boys are now taken to the swimming baths separately and male attendants are barred when the girls are there. The school has rejected a request for individual cubicles in its PE changing rooms; neither boys nor girls are comfortable with changing in public but Mr Knight says the suggestion is impractical. Instead, some children bring in a large sheet sewn up one side which they can slip over their heads while changing.

Muslim governors are increasingly making demands. For example, Islamic law forbids drawing the human form, and that leads to what Mr Knight calls "a lively dialogue with the art teacher". Some parents also object to the use of musical instruments in music lessons, fearing their connection with pop music and Western youth culture, which they see as riddled with sex and drugs. There have even been requests for separate play areas and separate classes for boys and girls, which would be at odds with Small Heath's status as a co-educational school.

"It may well be that there is more trouble ahead. I just hope we don't reach the stage where there is out-and-out conflict," Mr Knight says. Generally he feels that much progress has been made and many potential flashpoints avoided. "In 25 years I have seen a revolution. I think we have a record of accommodation and co-operation of which we can be proud."

Small Heath and many such schools now provide ritually slaughtered halal meat for Muslim pupils and let girls wear trousers and a hajib, or headscarf. Collective worship and religious education are more contentious. These have always been mainly Christian and parents have always had the right to withdraw their children, but agreed syllabuses for RE in each diocese are now being drawn up, bringing the issue into the public domain.

Assemblies which must be "wholly or mainly" Christian are a sore point. Most schools break the law and offer secular or multi-faith worship, but the reforms have made Muslims aware of the issue. They complain that children withdrawn from assembly by their parents have sometimes been made to stand outside the door as if they have offended in some way, and that few schools make sufficient space available for their prayers. A few years ago, two boys were sent home from a Birmingham school for praying in the car park, and more recently a Muslim teacher was told that if she wanted 10 minutes' break to say prayers she would have to go part- time.

Sex education, too, causes problems. Under the 1993 Education Act, the basics of reproduction must be taught in biology and are compulsory, although parents can withdraw their children from the discussions on morality, which come under the heading of personal and social education. In some schools, Muslim parents have complained that textbook diagrams showing the human reproductive system are pornographic.

Teachers try to be helpful. But other problems remain insurmountable. Muslims prefer single-sex secondary schools for girls and, in some areas, there is a shortage of them. With only 227 such schools across the country offering fewer than 200,000 places, the 100,000 or so Muslim girls of secondary age cannot all be accommodated. The Muslim Education Trust, which monitors developments in state schools, receives frequent calls from parents torn between their daughters' educational needs and their fears over their moral safety.

Islamia is one of the rapidly growing network of independent Muslim schools which try to satisfy such parents; 44 have opened in the past 15 years, all privately funded and many desperately short of cash. They have room for only 4,000 pupils - about 1 per cent of the total Muslim school population. By contrast there are 800,000 Catholic children in England and Wales, 674,000 in state-funded Catholic schools.

The Muslim schools have not always had a good academic reputation. In 1984 Zakariya Girls' High in Batley, West Yorkshire, was given six months to improve after inspectors found its building - a dilapidated Victorian terrace with stinking lavatories - "depressing" and its lessons "intellectually unchallenging and aesthetically limited". But in Brent, Tower Hamlets and Birmingham, Muslim schools topped the exam league tables last year. At Islamia Girls' High, 53 per cent of pupils gained five or more A-C grades at GCSE, well above both the borough average of 35 per cent and the national average of 43 per cent.

Nighat Mirza, who left her job as a science teacher in the state sector in 1989 to run a Muslim girls' school in Bradford, has been part of the movement to raise academic standards. "I came because I felt it was a challenge. People had the perception that a Muslim school meant no education," she says.

Yusuf Islam believes the movement will continue to grow. He thinks his chances of getting state funding are better than in 1993, when his last application was turned down, because there are no longer surplus school places in the locality. He quotes Mohammed in support of his case: "'Every child is born with an original, pure nature. It is only his parents who make him a Christian or a Jew.' It means Islam recognises that parents have the right to educate their children according to their wishes."