The stereotypical Muslim school is an institution that isolates itself from the wider community; an establishment that places more emphasis on religious observance than educational attainment. As we report today, the Tauheedul Islam Girls' School in Blackburn confounds that stereotype. Tauheedul began as an independent faith school and entered the state system in 2006. It has the second-best performance of any non-selective school in the country at GCSE level. And now the local council has asked Tauheedul's management to help turn around another struggling state school in the area – a task the school's head, Hamid Patel, is relishing.
And Mr Patel wants to go further than merely offering advice on engaging parents and monitoring performance. He envisages co-operation between the two schools in sport and other extra-curricular activities. Nor does Mr Patel want Tauheedul to be a school exclusively for Muslims. He has already received interest from non-Muslim parents and expects they will be a growing feature of the school's intake as Tauheedul expands. Mr Patel also points out that half of Tauheedul's teachers are non-Muslims. So much for the religious ghetto.
Critics of faith schools will argue that this is only a single school and that not all the managements of these institutions are as progressive as Mr Patel. True, but what Tauheedul shows is that Muslim faith schools do not necessarily have a separatist mentality. It is not a foregone conclusion that these schools will divide communities.
The Coalition's schools reforms – in many respects a continuation of the direction of the previous government – will mean an expansion in the number of faith schools in Britain. The shift needs to be accompanied by safeguards. If these institutions are to receive state funding, the state must require them to play an active part in their local community. Any covert selection needs to be eliminated.
Tauheedul is an encouraging example of how the new system can work. It should not be an excuse for ministers to neglect their responsibility to ensure schools serve communities. A freeing up of the education sector must not mean laissez-faire.