Leading Article: Lame excuse that lets down Muslims

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The Independent Online
THE ISLAMIA primary school in north-west London is the country's finest Muslim school, a flagship for its community. It has undergone an expensive refurbishment and has a good academic record. The school's waiting list of about 1,000 testifies to its popularity. When John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, visited the school in the spring he was impressed. Islamia would surely be a credit to state education if it were given government support.

Not surprisingly, many Muslims are deeply disillusioned after ministers this week turned down an application for the school to become Britain's first state- aided Islamic school. The refusal will cause financial hardship and may even threaten the school's existence. Muslims note that there are 4,000 state-funded Roman Catholic, Anglican and Jewish schools and conclude that they are being treated as second-class citizens.

Baroness Blatch, Minister of State for Education, explained that there were already too many primary places locally to justify another state-aided school. This is a lame excuse. It is true that all state-aided schools have to demonstrate an overriding need for more places. However, in the case of some city technology colleges this condition has been overlooked. A blind eye might also have been turned to the requirement in this instance. In any case, ministers must accept that parental choice, which they champion so fiercely, is impossible without spare capacity in schools.

The truth seems to be that ministers have hidden behind a technicality to avoid the precedent of supporting an Islamic school. The long period of agonising before Lady Blatch's announcement suggests that excess capacity was not the chief concern. Rather, the Government was unwilling to take the right and fair decision.

Some people will applaud this disingenuous behaviour. Across the political spectrum there are those who argue that official support for Islamia would open the way for many more Muslim schools. This, they say, could mean that most Muslim children would be separated from their peers and confined to a cultural ghetto. They cite fears that girls in Muslim schools would face a poorer education, inconsistent with the sexual equality that is meant to underpin the state system.

These are dangerous myths, founded in ignorance. Muslims are united in believing that they are as entitled as Christians to have their own state-supported schools. But most would not actually send their children to Islamic schools: they prefer them to be educated in the mainstream system for the sake of their career prospects. Parents want single-sex education for their teenage daughters, but the demand for the 20 or so Islamic schools (few of which meet strict requirements for state funding) comes from a minority. One virtue of these schools is that girls from conservative religious backgrounds are more likely to complete their education. Parents do not withdraw them from school out of concern for their moral welfare. So these girls have a better chance of achieving their potential.

There is no good educational reason for refusing government finance to Islamia. The decision can only confirm Muslims' feeling that they are a persecuted minority suffering discrimination. Ironically, a decision that reflects fears that Muslims will not assimilate may exacerbate their sense of isolation.