Muslims want slice of school places cash

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The Independent Online
MUSLIM schools that have been rebuffed in their attempts to gain state funding are to launch a new campaign for a slice of pounds 92m of taxpayers' money which funds pupils in top independent schools each year.

The Association of Muslim Schools says it is exploring the option of joining the Assisted Places Scheme, which helps bright children from homes with modest incomes to be educated at some of the country's most famous schools by contributing towards their fees.

According to the association, schools for white, middle-class people obtain state funds while working-class Muslims are forced to pay fees if they want their children to have a religious education. However, independent schools' representatives reply that a large number of Muslims already hold assisted places in their schools.

The move is the latest in a series of manoeuvres by independent Muslim schools, of which there are now about 30 in the UK, to achieve the same status as about 4,000 Christian and a handful of Jewish schools which receive state funding.

A previous attempt by the Islamia Muslim school in Brent, north London, to secure voluntary-aided status, which would have meant that all its day-to-day costs were met by the local authority, failed despite a 10-year campaign. Ministers signalled their reluctance to open the door to a new wave of non-Christian state schools when they finally rejected the Muslim case a year ago.

Since then, Muslim schools have been considering 'opting in' under a new policy which allows independent schools to join the state system. But leaders of the movement feel that, with a Labour government possibly only two years away, it may be politically unwise to continue. Independent schools that opt in become grant-maintained, with funding provided by central government, and would be opposed by Labour on that basis. They might also find it hard to meet all the rules and regulations imposed on state schools, such as the requirement that sex education must be taught to girls.

Moheem Yaseem, spokesman for the association, which represents about half the Muslim schools in Britain, said the Assisted Places route to state funding now seemed attractive. Under the scheme, which takes in many of the most famous public schools, parents whose joint income does not exceed pounds 20,000 receive help with school fees. 'We are exploring this option and we may have to test it. Why should only rich, white, non-Muslim, middle-class schools benefit? This battle-front should be opened,' Mr Yaseem said.

Guidance from the Department for Education shows that few Muslim schools would qualify for the scheme at present because its member schools must have at least 60 pupils in each year and have well-established sixth forms which at least comprise 60 pupils. They must also teach the full range of national curriculum subjects plus Latin or Greek, economics, music and art.

Mr Yaseem said that the requirement for Latin or Greek should be changed to allow Muslim schools in, as they offered languages such as Persian or Urdu instead. On most other counts, they would be able to meet the requirements in the next few years, he said.

Though most of the schools have fewer than 300 pupils, they are planning expansions and new sixth forms which will give them the academic status they need. There is also pressure from other independent schools for a relaxation of the rules to let in pupils with a wider range of abilities.

A spokesman for the department said its 35,000 places were all spoken for, but that it might expand in the future.

'This is not because these are Muslim schools or anything else, but the scheme has achieved its target and we are not looking for new schools,' he said.

A spokesman for the Independent Schools' Information Service said that 7 per cent of children with assisted places were Asian, and many of those would be Muslims.

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