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State-funded faith schools

This paper will look at the way in which state-funded faith schools came into being in the United Kingdom. It will argue that government educational policy and its immigration and integration policies play a key role in determining the need for the provision of state faith schools.

The state funding of faith schools has a long history in the United Kingdom. The National Society of the Church of England founded 17,000 schools to offer education to the poor between 1811 and1860. (DfES, p.2) The state funding of these schools began in 1870 when Church and other voluntary institutions began to receive funds to supplement and assist them in their educational provision. (Cush, p.435)

As at January 2008, of the 20,587 maintained primary and secondary schools in the UK, 6,827 have a religious character and of these nine are Muslim. (Bolton, 2009,Table 1) There are three types of schools with religious character in the UK - maintained, academies and independent schools - with the state providing funding for the first two. Maintained schools are either: voluntary controlled which means the Local Education Authority provides all the funding in return for control mostly over religious education and governance (most Church of England schools are voluntary controlled); and voluntary aided where the state provides 90% of the funding for more control over religious education and governance (most other denominations fall into this category, especially Roman Catholic schools). (Cush p. 435-436). Christian and Jewish faith schools were the only faith schools receiving state funding until 1998 when the Islamia Schools Trust, after a battle of 12 years, was awarded voluntary aided status for its schools. Whilst there are only nine state funded Muslim schools, there are over 100 Muslim schools in Britain. These independent schools tend to co-ordinate their efforts through the Association of Muslim Schools.

On November 11th, 2007 during Prime Minister's Questions, the government stated that regarding education it "is committed to a diverse system of schools driven by parental needs and aspirations; that the Government does not have targets for faith schools but remains committed to supporting the establishment of new schools by a range of providers." (Bolton, 2009, p.14) Reaffirming the Government's position on faith schools, Ed Balls, the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said on January 9th, 2008: "It is not the policy of the Government or my Department to promote more faith schools. We have no policy to expand their numbers. That should be a matter for local communities." (Bolton, 2009, p.16)

The drive for some members of the Muslim community towards their own faith schools needs to be understood in light of the backdrop of Muslim migration into the UK, their subsequent integration and recent world events. The first Muslims arriving from South Asia in the 1950s were semi-skilled or unskilled labourers. They had a tendency to stay insulated from the wider community - this being as much a function of their own choice as a response to the racism and social exclusion they were experiencing. (Hefner, p.227) Subsequent open immigration policies of the 1970s allowed their families to follow and now 75% of all Muslims in the UK are from South Asia. According to the 2001 census, the approximately 1.6 million British Muslims make up roughly 3% of the population. (Hefner, p. 227) In the UK, "Muslim" has become synonymous with "Pakistani".

Third generation British-born Muslim families no longer think of themselves as immigrants, although what it means to be a British Muslim is still a concept being negotiated. Our identities are defined as much by our own understanding of our histories as by how we think others perceive us. In recent years, the identity of Muslims has been tied up with world events and striking representations in the media. Since September 11th, 2001, Muslims have been bombarded by an overwhelmingly hostile media and a government apparently intent on impinging on the liberties and human rights of its Muslim citizens. Salma Hafejee described an event that evoked not uncommon feelings in her 21 year old son. Speaking on a film for "Our Lives", a project which explored the insights and experiences of Muslim women in Bradford, she told the story of a weekend visit her son took to Barcelona. Coincidently, on the weekend of his trip there had been a series of arrests made in Barcelona in connection with what had been described as terrorist activities. On his return home, her son was met by police and questioned for several hours. She said he had always felt British and believed that his British passport would protect him, but for the first time he felt an alien in his own home. (Speak-it, 2009) One can well imagine that this experience and the constant barrage of negative images relating to his faith in the media must have been bewildering. Naturally surrounded by such hostility and "other"ised in this way, a community would have a tendency to close ranks and look inward for comfort, protection and security.

This situation can be seen as some justification for why the Muslim community turned to Muslim schools to preserve their communal identity and Muslim practices. The Education Reform Act 1988 states that schools should "promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and in society..." Some Muslims were beginning to question whether a non-Muslim schooling environment would be able to adequately fulfil that need for their children. The Education Act of 1944 made religion the only subject it was compulsory to teach in school, but the teaching of religion is relatively superficial, meaning that from the perspective of those for whom a religious ethos is important, mainstream schools are unable to provide the spiritual and religious dimension adequately.

How governments deal with the provision of religion does seem to have some bearing on the educational choices of parents. An examination of Belgium and The Netherlands shows that when the government provision of religious education is high, the demand for religious schools is muted. In Belgium, 4% of the population is Muslim - primarily of Turkish or Moroccan descent. Since 1975, it has been the law to provide Islamic instruction in state schools on the same basis as other religions are taught. The first, and only, state funded Islamic primary school opened in 1989 and seems to be linked to the inability of two municipalities to appoint officially recognised teachers and thereby their refusal to provide Islamic instruction. In The Netherlands, 6% of the population is Muslim and also primarily of Turkish or Moroccan descent. The state does not have a policy for the specific provision of Islamic instruction and there are 45 Islamic schools in The Netherlands. (Merry, 2005)

In the UK, the lack of adequate provision of religious education in mainstream state schools, the hostility of the media, the government and the public to their faith and community, and the recorded underachievement of Pakistanis in mainstream schools combine to form a powerful motivator for Muslim parents to take over control of the education of their child.

Given the UK government's expansive rhetoric about promoting and supporting Britain to be a multi-cultural society, and its stated commitment to a diverse system of schools driven by parental needs and aspirations, the support of Muslim state funded schools is an easy stretch.

But an agreed definition of a multicultural society seems woefully lacking. The government has a 'policy of promoting multiculturalism' but if it is unable to define what a multicultural society could look like, how does it know that the policies it is promoting are effective to meeting this end? Today's multicultural Britain has many faces dependent largely on ethnicity, geography and social class, which in turn is one of the determinants of educational achievement. Is multicultural simply the acknowledgment of diversity in our society or is it an engagement with that diversity to create a society that is pluralistic? Does it mean that we are all free to live in our own sub-worlds without interface with the wider community or does it mean that we are encouraged to engage with each other? Where is the thread that binds us as citizens if we live entirely culturally independent lives?

This was a question that was raised by Ray Honeyford more than twenty years ago and it is still a question that warrants addressing thoughtfully today. In 1982 Bradford Council issued guidelines for its aim in education. These included: preparing children for a life in a multicultural society; countering racism and the inequalities of discrimination; developing the strengths of cultural and linguistic diversity; and responding to the needs of minority groups.

Ray Honeyford was a headteacher in a Bradford middle school and he was concerned that the educational policies he was expected to implement were unworkable. He argued that the 20% of Bradford's Islamic immigrant population had intentions to remain in Britain. For their sake and for the sake of others, they should participate fully in British life, and that in order to do so effectively their education needed to stress the primacy of the English language, and British culture, history and traditions. (Dalrymple, 2002) In 1984, Honeyford wrote an article that was rejected by The Times Educational Supplement before being published by the far right Salisbury Review. The fact that it was this publication that was the first method of transmission connoted a lot to its readers and no doubt would have influenced the subsequent interpretation of the article itself. In "Education and Race - an Alternative view" Honeyford (2006) suggested that the perversion of language (he had a Masters in linguistics) around race and cultural issues had made it impossible to speak honestly about the concerns and realities that our increasingly diverse society was throwing up. He highlighted that lumping together all non-whites into one category that was "black" created a dichotomy of anti-white solidarity. What we, today, call "other"-ing. His primary concern was the impact of an imposed multicultural mindset on the education of his students. British law obliges a parent to ensure that his or her child is registered and attends school regularly. He argued that the tendency for Asian families to take their children out of school and send them to the sub-continent for months at a time was not only illegal but had obvious negative educational effects. The Department of Education and Science turned a blind eye leaving headteachers, like Honeyford, to comply with an attendance policy based on the parent's country of origin. He found this indefensible and cast it as an "officially sanctioned policy of racial discrimination." (Honeyford, 2006) Honeyford further highlighted that the absence of English as a primary language of instruction at the school left the "ethnic white" minority students in his schools educationally disadvantaged. His broader concern was how the functioning of inner cities with its production of ethnic ghettos, and multi-racial educational policies could produce an integrated and harmonious society. He concluded: "I suspect that these elements, far from helping to produce harmony, are, in reality, operating to produce a sense of fragmentation and discord. And I am no longer convinced that the British genius for compromise, for muddling though, and for good natured tolerance will be sufficient to resolve the inevitable tensions." (Honeyford, 2006)

Post-publication, Honeyford endured a protracted and bitter campaign against him leading to his eventual early retirement. The vitriolic response to his assertions for better and more integrative education did not raise the government action. Issues raised by the "Honeyford Affair" continue to be debated more than two decades later. Honeyford's tough and courageous questioning of issues that the government was too uncomfortable to raise and try and work through have left a lasting vacuum on integration and the harmonious and "multicultural" world we reasonably aspire to.

In light of these affairs, the debate on faith schools - which predominantly relates to maintained schools - leads us first to ask what the aim and purpose of education is. Is education intended to provide us with skills for employment, in which case it is driven by a practical measurable output? Or is in intended for, as Aristotle called it, human flourishing? And are these two necessarily mutually exclusive? If education is deemed a human right, then what role does the child play in determining the education that he receives? These questions don't seem to have been directly touched upon by those debating the desirability of faith schools.

Given the faith school debate touches on areas of education, politics and religion it is unlikely to be a dispassionate one. Most of the debate is opinion- rather than evidence-based (Cush p.440) and writers on the issue repeatedly bemoan the lack of empirical evidence to substantiate claims from either side. As Muslims are becoming acutely aware of their minority status, the drive towards Islamic schools is as much a response to the attack on their identity as it is about the ethos of education. According to Heffner and Zaman (2007, p. 228) "In recent years, the issue of Islamic education has been a vital part of the debate about what it means to be a British Muslim today and an important terrain in the negotiation of identity, citizenship and co-existence."

Mainstream education tends to view the world though an Anglo-Saxon lens and achievements are Europeanised. The study of the contributions made by Muslim scholars over the centuries in many subject areas is a boost to self-esteem and those calling for Muslim schools are looking for a change in the way the world is viewed. The mission statement of the Islamia Trust Schools states that it "strive[s] to provide the best education in a secure Islamic environment through the knowledge and application of the Qur'an and Sunnah." (Islamia) What this requires is a reconception of the way in which any subject can be taught, negotiating as it must through the Qur'an and the Sunnah. The argument being made is that Muslim children are becoming de-Islamised (Khan-Cheema, p.83) and that mainstream schools are failing to provide an ethos in which all, not just secular, aspects of a child's life are catered for. Concern for the lack of single sex provision in the mainstream for girls is also voiced as a concern and a reason for requiring the provision of Muslim schools. The academic underachievement of Pakistanis in mainstream schools is well recognised, but their achievement in faith schools is well above average (Bolton, 2009). The direct connection linking improved academic results and faith schools should be made cautiously as academic achievement is also liked to the economic and social class of the family.

The case against Muslim faith schools is a compelling one. Those fighting this position say that these schools are a breeding ground for fundamentalist and intolerant religious views that are not inclusive of the majority. They propagate segregation and voluntary apartheid and create ghettos which exclude other races and faiths, thus creating social division. With Islam almost universally cast as a threat to world order this raises questions relating to citizenship and loyalty. Those in this camp may draw some of their inspiration from the position Honeyford took on the need to integrate rather than segregate more than 2 decades ago.

Why would, and how could, an immigrant who lands in the UK who is able to create for himself an environment that reflects - culturally, socially, and educationally - the one which he left, have any opportunity to build loyalty to his host country. Clearly the government's position on what a multicultural Britain would look like needs to be debated much more openly - if only so we can try and understand how we will get there. A laissez-faire each-to-his own policy cannot surely provide the way forward. The questions Honeyford asked more than 20 years ago, distasteful as they were, are questions we might need to ask again today.

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