BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 09.12.01

Film: PAUL WILENIUS reports on the government's plan to allow an increase in the number of faith schools. Will it change race relations?

PAUL WILENIUS: The morning school run starts a new day for this all Muslim school in Birmingham. But it could also herald a new age for single faith schools in this country. Tony Blair believes schools like this are good for children, indeed some of his own family attend Catholic schools in London. Tony Blair is pushing through a policy to create more faith schools, just like this one. But there are growing concerns this may produce more racial segregation, rather than integration. And as a result his government is coming under pressure to change these policies, as there are fears it could create more racial tension. DR ASHOK KUMAR MP: My fear is that we could have situations of communities where we have a Muslim community having a Muslim school, a Hindu community holding Hindu school and a Sikh community holding a Sikh school and of course less integration between them. PHIL WOOLAS MP: We do need the children to learn together, to live together and to understand each other, and it's only in that way that we will get integration. MATTHEW TAYLOR: My message to ministers is if faith based school policy is used wrongly it is going to further divide our communities and there will be more riots this year, next year and the year after. WILENIUS: Registration at the Al-Hijrah School. It's one of the new faith schools allowed by the government. But the Education Bill going through Parliament now, could clear the way for many more. Many minority religious groups are expected to ask for state funding for more schools. They want the same rights given to Catholics and Anglicans, making it a level playing field. Most schools in this country are secular. Overall there's twenty-five thousand state schools in the country. Of those there's seven-thousand which are religious in character. The number not of major Christian denominations are forty with thirty-two Jewish schools, while the number of Muslim Schools is only four, with another two schools run by Sikhs. AKHMED HUSSAIN: It provides an environment where they can learn with confidence, learn about their faith, learn about their culture, learn about all the other things that they need to become good citizens within this society. And I think they can do that with confidence in this environment where they can pray without any restriction whatsoever. UNNAMED MAN: My main reasons actually for sending my children here is, there's three areas which I'm sort of concerned about, and that is the spiritual development of my children, moral development as well as educational development, so it's a whole package. UNNAMED WOMAN: I practise my religion at home and I like for them to carry on their practices in this school, plus I believe the teachers here are very well educated themselves. WILENIUS: Parents feel pupils like these get a better overall education in faith schools. And this school prides itself on its good grades. But the Think Tank Civitas said last week that, in general, standards in these schools are no better. MIKE O'BRIEN MP: We live in a multi-cultural society and that means that we should respect people's right to be different including on issues of religion. It's not about separateness, it's about respect for the right of people to be different, and the benefit we all get from having a multi-cultural society which is diverse, which does respect different religions, and people's right to have their own set of values within the context of a multi- cultural Britain. So those people who argue that faith schools is about division, are wrong. KUMAR: I went through state education. I enjoyed it, it was a great enlightening experience, and I think it did me no harm. I see myself multi-culturalist and part and parcel of this society, but I fear that the success we have made of our multi-culturalism multi-faith society, I think the dangers signs are there, that if we go push too far, too fast down this road there are danger signs in this. WILENIUS: Since the summer riots and September the eleventh, Ministers and Labour MPs are more worried about the faith schools policy. Already Education Secretary Estelle Morris is backtracking. She's putting more emphasis on getting faith schools to be more inclusive, by bringing children of different backgrounds together. But there are real doubts whether such a policy work can actually work. MATTHEW TAYLOR: I certainly think there's a greater nervousness in government about the faith school policy, since the events of September the eleventh, and the ramifications of those events in terms of what it's told us about different attitudes within Britain, but I think more particularly the riots in northern towns and cities and the alarm bells that has rung about segregation in those places. So I think the government is thinking about the policy again. WILENIUS: Although faith schools place a great deal of emphasis on religion many, like this one, do make a lot of effort to maintain strong links with other sections of their community. The government now wants to make sure that all religious schools co-operate more with other schools and bodies in their area. There's a belief this sort of partnership between schools could help bring people together. TAYLOR: They've got to say to faith based schools, you are part of the education community. You are not an island in yourself. And there are lots of ways in which you can do that. It's about bringing children in to the school from other schools, children from the faith based school going out, it's about shared activities, drama, sports, those sorts of things that bring kids together. AKHMED HUSSAIN: We have very strong link with the community of the school, with the religious institutions which are around the school and with the non- religious, non Muslim institutions, and other schools and colleges around the area. It think this is very important in ensuring that we do not remain separate. WILENIUS: But merely moving towards greater co-operation is not enough for many MPs and experts. They feel faith schools should let in more children from other religions. Ministers are known to be thinking about encouraging religious schools to adopt a more open admissions policy when they issue new guidelines next year. This is exactly what some race experts feel is needed. BARONESS UDDIN: Many church schools, apart from certain schools in some of the areas that we visited have, you know, where unacceptably they have hundred per cent, you know, Asian children, Muslim children or hundred per cent Christian white children, I think that is, in this country, must be unacceptable, especially in those type of areas. What has to happen is that new schools, new faith schools that are given licence also have to say that you know, to your neighbours, you should be able to accept other, other children, I think that, that's my, again in my own personal opinion, that must be the way forward that all schools must be asked to look at their entry criteria to ensure that they're not excluding those across their gate. WILENIUS: This school says they will be prepared to consider letting in pupils from other faiths. But the government's problem is that many existing religious schools across the country will be unwilling to open up their own schools if it means losing control of admissions policy. REV VINCENT NICHOLS: I think it's far more important that schools are enabled from their strengths to work together than a mix is placed into a school, which then becomes education to the lowest common denominator. I think it's far more, a far more helpful way forward to encourage schools into partnerships than to force them into take mixes of children who then as it were don't know who they are, then just have to be part of a fruit salad. WILENIUS: The desire to protect culture and religion lies behind the move towards more faith schools. And critics say by their very nature they tend to exclude outsiders. Even if the government tried to encourage schools to take more pupils from other faiths, it's feared few would take the places. This school has yet to have an application from a non-Muslim. KUMAR: I see dangers ahead that unless we ensure that Hindu youngsters be able to go to Muslim schools and the other way round, I think what we'll get is pockets of division in the community and I see very serious dangers because that will stop in itself integration which we have been trying to work together and of course, I'd love to see, if it's possible, Catholic youngsters going to Muslim schools. Again, I struggle with that concept, I just can't see that happening. I like to see some evidence of that. I haven't seen any so far. WILENIUS: So the path to a large scale growth of the religious schools sector will not be as smooth as it once looked. Indeed many Labour MPs are divided over the issue, and there are calls to abandon the expansion policy altogether. TONY WRIGHT MP: If you were starting again, would you start with religious schools anyway? And I think the answer is, no, you wouldn't. Then you've got the question - what do you do with those you've already got? To which my answer is, well you should try to open them up more. That's not the same as saying let's have more of them. O'BRIEN: It doesn't worry me that ninety-nine per cent of children in a particular school are of a, are of one faith, providing that school is teaching the national curriculum, the basic rights of British citizenship, teaching people how to be good British citizens and of course part of the idea of being included in a multi-racial multi-cultural society is that we have to respect people's right to be different. WILENIUS: The computer room is a shining example of expansion in this Muslim school. Yet even the Christian Socialist Movement - which has Tony Blair as a member - is having doubts about increasing the number of faith schools. Some senior Labour figures are warning that if the government gets this policy wrong, it could have serious consequences. WOOLAS: Well we have Anglican and Catholic schools in Oldham and fairness would say that, why aren't there Muslim schools? The horrible reality is that if we were to say we are going to have a Muslim school now in Oldham, exclusively Muslim school, it would cause a huge division and resentment and, and problems. TAYLOR: What we might see is these schools contributing to a process that I've called consenting apartheid, which is where communities agree to separate with catastrophic consequences I think, for the people who live in those places and for the places themselves. And we saw the consequences of that consenting apartheid process in Oldham and Bradford and the places we saw riots over the summer. The government could never forgive itself and should never be forgiven if the faith based school policy drives that process further forward. WILENIUS: It's the evening school run. Parents line up to take their children home, after a day learning and praying. But the frenzy of activity in the school yard mirrors the passions stirred up by the debate over religious schools. Tony Blair is learning himself, that although faith schools are popular with parents, he might find it a lot harder than he thought to take everyone with him.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.