Hallelujah! At last the Government has seen the light, if not the Beeb

Trevor Phillips on Muslim education
Click to follow
The Independent Online
They'll be giving extra thanks to the Almighty in the prayers at your local mosque today. One reason is that David Blunkett, the Education Secretary has seen the light, metaphorically speaking ,and decided to accord Muslim parents and children the same rights as those of virtually every other faith community; he has announced that two Muslim schools will benefit from government support provided they meet the requisite educational standards. The other reason is that since there are no Asian players in the professional football game, it is unlikely that they will have to confront the question of what to do with a football commentator who claims that he finds it hard to distinguish between black players.

Astonishingly, John Motson's insult has, so far, gone unpunished by the BBC; so much for the protestations of the Corporation that it really, really wants to embrace Britons of all kinds. Perhaps equally surprisingly, no black player has been asked for his opinion by any of the major news organisations. You can imagine, however, how those who lined up behind the "Kick Racism Out of Football" campaign must be feeling. Ironically, it is Blunkett who is supposed to have impaired vision; but John Motson's unique form of colour blindness serves to highlight just how radical Mr Blunkett's decision is.

Most children do not, and will never go to denominational schools. There are those who regard such places as abominations, preserving the worst cultural and social divisiveness in, for example, Northern Ireland. They often fail to point out that such schools are the most popular in their areas, and that the children themselves feel at ease in them; that it is the way in which relations between schools are handled that may or not create social conflict; and that the real educational apartheid that exists in Britain today is, as pointed out by Sir Herman Ouseley, all too often between rotting, under-resourced inner city schools with a majority of non-white pupils, and the rest.

For most of us, this is not a personal issue of course. Relatively few families, even those who profess a specific religious faith feel strongly enough to put the fourth "R" - religion - in front of a good grounding in the other three. Good teaching, distance from home, and children's own wishes generally come first. But I believe that most of us want the choice to exist. It is rather like the majority of TV viewers, who spend most of their time watching Blind Date and Friends, yet insist that the documentaries that they never see are an essential component of the TV they like. Millions of Britons who would never dream of sending their children to denominational schools for religious reasons are content to let the option exists, if only for someone else to take.

Given that such schools are supported by governments of all stamps, the Education Secretary was right not to listen to those who argued against allowing Muslim schools. First, on grounds of fairness; most of the opposition seemed to be motivated by sheer prejudice and fear of Muslims; if the wild generalisations made about Islam had been made about Judaism there would, rightly, have been a storm of protest. t would have been monstrously unfair that one recognised faith was unable to share the right to have its own schools. Second, it is right that there should be choice in the kind of school available. Every child is individual; should the system not try to recognise that?

Third, it is a vital recognition of diversity. Paradoxically, many progressive multiculturalists, will feel queasy about state recognition of cultural separateness. The orthodoxy is that every school should be thoroughly multicultural in its curriculum and its practice. By that they mean that every school in the country should carry the same lessons with similarly broad-based references that include people and traditions of all kinds.

The reasoning is superficially persuasive: it is often precisely the schools where there is no ethnic or religious diversity among the pupils that need the most attention from this point of view. Thus, children in Brixham are said to need steel bands as much as do those in Brixton. Also, history should not be incomplete; children should know that when the Tudors created the greatest maritime power ever seen, as well as ruling the waves they used their power to perpetrate a genocide we now call the slave trade.

Whether doing this in all its purity is entirely practicable is questionable, but the principle is clear. However, there are things at which I would draw the line; few things are more painful than watching teachers who have no reason ever to speak West Indian patois trying to force children ( many of whom, black and white will be more fluent in Jamaican than they are) to accept it as a natural part of their Eng Lit diet. And all too often, schools, which are by their very nature generalist simply get it wrong; for example, I have very little against steel bands in their place, but for them to become a symbol of Caribbean culture is an embarrassing travesty, which, probably makes most black children cringe rather than feel included.

The real aid to diversity is not to force everyone to accept a watered- down, bowdlerised version of a collection of half-digested cultures; it is for different communities to have their chance to create their own centres of tradition, which exist uncompromised and authentic. That is why the right to have such schools as the ones now backed by the Government is so important; it gives a clear signal that in modern Britain being what you really are is nothing to be afraid of, that we can live with real differences, and that we genuinely embrace the new traditions among us.

Mind you, that's clearly going to be pretty hard to achieve on the football field. So far, in all the embracing that goes on after a goal, a South Asian player has never been in the huddle. No-one quite seems to know why. It may of course have a lot to do with the behaviour of fans, who haven't fully accepted the disproportionate number of African-Caribbean players. Two years ago my mate (that's what somebody you go to football is called - he can't just be a friend, can he?) and I decided to introduce our younger daughters to the game.

Having bought the most expensive seats in the most expensive stand in the country, we assumed we'd be safe from the usual nonsense; yet no sooner had a black player popped before the words "you lanky-legged black twat" whizzed over our heads. I looked at him, he looked me and he said, feebly "No offence meant, mate". I suppose that's John Motson's defence; he said it but didn't mean it and if you took offence it was because you blacks are all so touchy. Still, if Motson is down to commentate on the World Cup, how will he cope with Nigeria vs Jamaica? Now those guys are really touchy. The Beeb should keep Motson on the bench for his own good and for ours.