Keep God out of the classrooms

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Nearer and nearer draws the time when Muslim parents will have the same rights to send their children to state schools of their own religious persuasion. This week, the Funding Agency for Schools inspected the Islamia School in north London, and 20 others are going through the process this year. For how much longer can the agency refuse state status? It seems to be fast running out of excuses. Islamia and several others top their local league tables, so they pass at least a narrowly defined quality threshold, one of the criteria for gaining state funding. With a waiting list of a thousand, it can hardly be argued that there is insufficient "demand". Eventually, a high proportion of Britain's 400,000 Muslim children could end up isolated in sectarian schools.

Does it matter? It means the state will educate children to believe women are of inferior status, one step behind in the divine order of things. The state will acquiesce in the repression of young girls, putting their parents' cultural rights above the duty to educate all British girls equally. Many Muslim women protest that this is their own cultural choice. All very well for adults to make those choices, but should the state education system encourage such ideas being taught to young children?

But it is hard to find any good reason for denying them state support while granting it to other faiths. Many describe all too painfully what has passed for "education" by state-funded Christian Brothers or bigoted nuns. Since the start of free education, the state has paid for Anglican schools, embracing them in the same sort of pragmatic compromise that let GPs remain as private contractors at the start of the NHS. The 1902 Balfour Education Act extended the same rights to other denominations - though the Protestants fulminated against "Rome on the rates". Now we shall have Mecca on the rates, too.

No reason why Moonies, Scientologists or Mormons might not follow, if there were enough of them and they fulfilled the rest of the criteria. For how is the state to differentiate between cults, cranks, fruitcakes and true believers? Religious belief is set oddly apart from all other aspects of human emotional, political and intellectual life. There would be an outcry if the state were to fund a Marxist or a monetarist school, a feminist, Freudian, astrological or New Age school. Parents are rightly indignant if some lefty teacher gives a purely Marxist version of history. So why tolerate religious ideology?

Some parents protest that no education is value free, so they want their own values taught. Or rather, they object that schools are too value free. This is nonsense, in that all good schools struggle hard to inculcate secular moral precepts. Religious parents object even more strongly to the sort of multi-faith teaching that suggests all religions are equally true. Young children hopping home with Diwali songs mixed in the carols taught by non-believing teachers does little to please anyone. It would be better for all state education to eschew religion. For there is a profound conflict between education, designed to create questioning minds, and religion, which demands a leap of faith without question.

Politically, religious segregation is dangerous. Globally, fear and loathing of Islam is approaching Cold War proportions. In Northern Ireland, sectarian education has been the main instrument of conflict. Did you go to St George's or St Theresa's is all anyone needs to ask.

The American Constitution forbids religious worship or teaching in state schools. Indoctrination is confined to the home, and churches, mosques or synagogues. If the British government were to withdraw funding from religious schools, then it would be obliged to adopt the American posture for the rest of its schools. For it is plainly wrong to force Muslim, Jewish or Hindu children to sit through Christian instruction or assemblies, or to be ostentatiously excluded from them.

The disgraceful clause in the 1988 Education Act forcing all schools to perform a daily act of worship, which should be "wholly or mainly Christian", is an affront to those of other faiths - or no faith at all. Ninety per cent of people in Britain are wholly or mainly nothing. Why does this huge majority have no right to have their children educated accordingly? Some of us who are atheists are indignant at the idea of our children's heads being filled with miracles and phantasms.

Many schools tried to wriggle out of the Act, interpreting "Christian" as broad ethics. But the Department for Education put a stop to this evasion with Circular 194 in 1994, which interpreted the Act rigorously: worship "must in some sense reflect something special or separate from ordinary school activities and it should be concerned with reverence paid to a Divine Being or Power. ... It must contain some elements which relate specifically to the traditions of Christian belief and which accord a special status to Jesus Christ." For as long as that remains on the statute book, Muslims and everyone else (including atheists) should have an absolute right to schools of their own.

One-third of state-funded schools are religious, so to withdraw funding now would be exceedingly difficult. Tony Blair and Harriet Harman have proved that they are among the most popular schools in the state system. Their popularity, however, springs less from their religious ethos than their good results. Church schools tend to be more middle class, situated in the better areas. A subtle form of selection often prevails. The spectacle of embarrassed, non-believing parents scuttling off to their local church to earn credit with the vicar is not unusual as school entrance time approaches. Some churchmen openly admit that these popular schools act as a useful magnet to their pews.

Labour says it has "no commitments on the question of religious worship or education in schools. We want to take a reasonably pragmatic approach." The Liberal Democrats are far more robust: Don Foster says: "In an ideal world, there would be no religious state schools. We would put a stop to the daily act of worship in an attempt to encourage all children to be educated together."

There is still time to stop an educational chasm between Muslim children and the rest. The state system needs to grant them rights. Religious freedom would have to be the quid pro quo (no more stories such as that of two young Muslim boys recently banned from praying in their school car park). The freedom to wear what they choose or absent themselves from classes of which they disapprove is already widely accepted. Most of all, the1988 Act would have to be repealed so state schools could wipe every trace of religion from their timetables.

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