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Bastions of tolerance or catalysts of racial tension? The debate on single-faith schools is rife with contradiction...
Bastions of tolerance or catalysts of racial tension? The debate on single-faith schools is rife with contradiction, says Crispin Andrews

The emotive issue of single-faith schools has once again been highlighted by a recent report, which calls for the provision of better Muslim schooling in the UK.

Muslims on education says the current education system is failing Muslim children - a claim the Confederation of Education & Children's Services Managers has fiercely rejected - and calls for Muslim state schools to be increased (LGC, 11 June).

The debate for and against the provision of single-faith schools is full of contradictions. Some argue that without due reference to their particular faith, education does not meet the needs of specific groups. Others claim that extending the number of divisive single-faith schools undermines multiculturalism and will eventually lead to segregation and even racial tension. These are met by counter claims that faith schools teach tolerance, they do not preach or indoctrinate.

This is the sort of climate in which councils must operate - making decisions about whether to support a school that decides to pursue the single-faith option.

Education Network co-ordinator Martin Rogers says that in giving out confused messages and expecting councils to implement policies with contradictory consequences, the government exacerbates the problem.

'The idea of single-faith schools sits uneasily alongside community cohesion in areas where the population is multi faith and, in particular, multi racial, ' he explains.

'Policies which allow what is essentially a free for all, with churches, schools and parents essentially doing as they please in terms of management and admissions, undermines other policies which aim to bring communities closer.'

With no firm commitment from national government, either to roll back or extend the numbers of single-faith schools, Mr Rogers believes the make up of the local population should be the determining factor of whether a council supports an application from a school for single-faith status. He explains: 'What needs to be carefully considered, is how such a school, particularly if an open admissions policy was not in place, would impact on community cohesion and other schools in the area.'

He adds: 'A local authority must be seen to act in a sensitive manner, involving all elements of the community in the consultation process. It must be unequivocal about its position. Through the release of information, it must minimise the gap between the real implications of the venture and exaggerated perceptions which can create new problems and inflame existing tensions.'

Cynthia Welbourne, president of Confed and director of education at North Yorkshire CC, says any decision regarding the governance of a school must be taken at local level, free from dogmatic ideological considerations.

She explains: 'Looking at the current mix of schools, it is evident that a number of permutations will work effectively in different places. At local level there are a people who, in consultation with parents and the community, decide which solution work best for the children.'

But does the entire debate between single faith and secular schooling miss the point?

Graham Lane, former Labour education chair of the Local Government Association, is less concerned with the make up of governing bodies than with schools - single faith or not - meeting the educational, moral and spiritual needs of its pupils. He says: 'If through consultation, we discover the issues of concern for local communities and ensure they are addressed within existing schools, the idea that more single-faith schools are the only way to meet the needs of certain individuals and groups will become marginalised.'

In Newham, schools close during Eid, the Muslim festival. Quite apart from the practical reality that some schools would be so devoid of staff and pupils at this time of the year as to make it impossible for them to operate, this gives a major signal that other religious festivals are considered of equal importance to Christmas.

Mr Lane says: 'To find workable solutions acceptable to all, other issues such as swimming, the presence of prayer rooms and religious education syllabuses must also be addressed through consultation - not just with religious and community leaders, but with students themselves.'

Other innovative solutions can also be found. In Liverpool, a multi-faith school, with five different religious groups represented on the governing body has been set up. A quota has been established to ensure each of the area's faith groups have similar admission opportunities.

Similarly, an extension of voluntary controlled rather than voluntary aided single-faith schools, would allay fears of restrictive admissions and staff recruitment policies based on religious preferences. It would be the education department, not the school's governing body, that would determine who attends and teaches in these schools.

Case study: Blackburn with Darwen BC

Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School in Blackburn, is set to become the county's first Muslim girls' school to be brought under council control.

'The majority of our schools are already single faith, either Roman Catholic or Church of England, offering Muslim parents limited additional opportunity to express a preference for a faith-based secondary school for their girls,' says Peter Morgan, director of education and lifelong learning at Blackburn with Darwen BC.

If successful, the school, which already offers the national curriculum to students, will be able to increase its numbers, and as part of the council's wider Building Schools for the Future bid, will offer improved facilities.

Although opinion has been divided with some senior local politicians against single-faith schools in principle, wider consultation with students, parents and religious leaders at a public meeting, unearthed widespread support for the venture. Mohammed Vali, deputy head teacher at Tauheedul Islam High School,

is sure that transferring the school into the control of Blackburn with Darwen is necessary to meet the demands of a growing number of students. He stresses that concerns over issues of segregation in Blackburn's education system are being addressed.

'There will be exchanges of staff, ideas and visits with other schools. If approached in the right way it will bring the community closer together. Even though it will be an Islamic school it won't be isolated. We will encourage close links, which will improve race relations, and pupils will get to know one another.'

General Facts

Over 30% of state schools in England have a religious character. There are around 7,000 faith schools from an overall total of nearly 22,000. Around 600 are secondary schools and 6,400 are primary.

All but 42 of the faith schools are associated with the major Christian denominations. Of the others, 34 are Jewish schools, four Muslim, two Sikh, one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist. From a further six schools that have been approved to open, one is Muslim, four Jewish and one Sikh.

As from 1 December 2003, independent schools - including city technology colleges and academies - can also apply to be designated as having a religious character.

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