Muslims seek state funding for schools

MUSLIM education campaigners, backed by right-wing Conservatives, will this week press the Government to fund Islamic schools and strengthen the rights of minority faiths in state schools.

Baroness Blatch, Minister of State for Education, is due to receive a delegation from the Muslim Education Forum which will include Baroness Cox, a Conservative peer, and John Marks, a traditionalist recently appointed to the School Examinations and Assessment Council.

They want schools to be directed to take a series of measures to meet the concerns of Muslim parents: to set aside facilities for religious education for Muslims and others between 4pm and 5pm, including teaching by local religious leaders; areas for prayer mats to be used during free time; and concessions to Muslim sensibilities over dress and school uniforms.

A decision by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, on whether to allow the Islamia primary school in north London to become a state-aided voluntary school is keenly awaited. For many Muslims, the school is a symbol. 'Islamia will make or break it,' Shabbir Akhtar, of the Muslim Education Forum, said yesterday. 'Are choice and diversity only for white children?'

Although the vast majority of Britain's estimated 300,000 Muslim children will continue to attend local authority schools whatever Mr Patten's decision, the repeated refusal of ministers to allow Islamic schools funded on the same basis as Church of England, Catholic or Jewish voluntary- aided schools has upset Muslims.

In May, a High Court judge directed Mr Patten to reconsider the Government's refusal in 1990 of the application from Islamia on the grounds that there were surplus places in the borough of Brent.

Mr Justice Macpherson, who described Islamia as a 'splendid and remarkable' school, said there had been manifest unfairness in its treatment. The school's backers have challenged the basis of the department's surplus places calculations and have pointed out that many pupils come from boroughs where there is a shortage.

Ministers have subsequently permitted a Catholic school in Birmingham to expand despite the existence of surplus places in the area, thus undermining the argument against Islamia.

The Government's figures on surplus places in schools come under further attack today from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. It says the target figure of 1.5 million surplus places in England and Wales is 'wildly overestimated' and that a better system of calculating classroom capacity needs to be devised.