Where Koran and calculators sit side by side: If Islamia School is not given state aid, it may have to close. John Patten must decide, reports Diana Hinds

AT THE Islamia Primary School, in Brent, north London, a group of eight-year-olds has been writing about why they like their school. 'Our school is special because in other English schools they do not pray and they do not read the Koran,' writes one girl, her composition pinned up in a corridor. 'They do not learn Arabic and they do not learn properly and they do not behave properly.'

But just how well do the Muslim children at Islamia learn? The question is a critical one for John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, who will decide shortly whether the school should receive state funding. Since it was founded 10 years ago by Yusuf Islam (formerly the pop singer Cat Stevens), the school has been campaigning for voluntary-aided status - which would place it alongside some 4,000 state-funded Roman Catholic, Anglican and Jewish schools.

Its application was rejected in 1990 by John MacGregor, then education secretary, because there were surplus primary- school places in Brent. A judicial review ordered Mr Patten to reconsider. If Islamia Primary succeeds this time, it will become the first Muslim voluntary-aided school in the country, opening the door to applications from a further 20 or so. If it fails, Mr Islam, chairman of the Islamia Schools Trust, has told parents, it may have to close.

With voluntary-aided status, Islamia would get its running costs (including staff salaries) and 85 per cent of its capital spending paid by the local authority. Up to now, the 180-pupil school has been heavily subsidised by Mr Islam. Parents are asked to contribute pounds 1,100 per year. The school is oversubscribed - currently there are 215 applicants for 30 places - and parents who can afford to pay tend to be favoured. More than 50 per cent pay the full pounds 1,100 and staff have accepted pay cuts. Nevertheless, a financial crisis looms.

The tall, red-brick building - formerly Kilburn Grammar School - cost the trust about pounds 2.5m to buy, repair and smarten up. Its corridors are painted in cheerful reds and greens.

In many respects its classrooms resemble those of any primary school. There is artwork and best handwriting on the walls; piles of reading material and storybooks on the shelves; workbooks in which the youngest Muslim pupils write their news - 'I went to Yaseen's house and we went to the park and we played football.'

But there are differences. Some of the writing is in Arabic - all the children learn Arabic as a second language - and the paintings and drawings are almost exclusively abstract and geometric, with not a human figure or animal in sight. Dr Azam Baig, the principal, explains that this is to ensure that followers of Islam are not tempted to worship idols.

Western music is similarly proscribed, on the grounds, Dr Baig explained, that it might lead pupils into 'too much worldliness', compared with the 'spiritual strengths' to be gained from singing Koranic verses. Mr Islam's music is, however, an exception. In one classroom, the girls, dressed in long fawn tunics and white hejab (veils), are rehearsing one of his songs about Islam and the problems of modern life. 'How can we say the world is good/When we hold up our hands and they are covered with blood?/ Can it be said we are free from lust?/When luxury is in need some say they must . . . ,' they chant.

Islamic education occupies about 15 to 20 per cent of school time. As well as Arabic, pupils read and memorise passages from the Koran, and in Islamic studies they learn 'how to live as a Muslim'. Dr Baig believes that this concentration on Islam is what attracts so many Muslim parents to the school and is what their children would be unlikely to receive elsewhere.

He maintains that the school follows the national curriculum 'as closely as we can, given that we do not have all the resources and training that local-authority schools have'. The core subjects - English, maths and science - are given prominence, the required tests for seven-year-olds are carried out and government inspectors visit regularly. 'We want the national curriculum, because we want our children to get to university,' Dr Baig said.

Science teaching is one of the school's strengths, he claims. Pupils benefit from a purpose- built laboratory, bequeathed by the grammar school. But the science curriculum has a religious slant: 'We do teach Darwin's theory of evolution, but we present it as a theory, not a fact - because it's not true. The Lord created man and his wife, and we came from there. But we give the children different views, and they are able to discuss them.'

Dance, which forms part of the national curriculum's physical education requirements, is not taught. 'We read the Koran instead,' said Dr Baig. But there are regular PE lessons in the large gym - the one subject area where girls aged nine to 11 are segregated from boys and male teachers, in the interests of Islamic 'modesty'.

Many of the girls at the primary school will go on to the private secondary, Islamia Girls School, on the top floor of the building. The girls' education, Dr Baig says, is not significantly different from that of the boys, although the school emphasises the importance of their future roles as wives and mothers.

'Some of the girls want to become scientists and doctors, and we are preparing them for that. But at the same time their most important duty is as Muslims, and they have responsibilities as mothers and wives. Personally, I think they have more to contribute in this way, because they are shaping a new generation. I think it's much more rewarding - and the rewards are not only in this life, they are in the hereafter.'

(Photograph omitted)

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