What's a Faith School like?
The government now imagines that Faith Schools might take 25% of “non-faith” children. Estelle Morris sensibly wondered on the Today programme yesterday whether they would turn out prove an attractive option to such children and their parents.
I had wondered exactly that over the weekend and had looked around to see what an Islamic Faith School might offer to the average punter (I don’t yet know if Sikh, Jewish, Catholic and other Faith Schools would present the same problems, but I’ll keep you posted.)
One of the best known of these is Feversham College in Bradford, a “Voluntary Aided” secondary school “for Muslim girls” in Bradford. Currently it will admit up to 10% of non-Muslims if there are places available (and won’t be affected by any government 25% ruling, which would only apply to new schools). What would one of these 10% find?
Let me say to start with that this is clearly a very good school with a very good Ofsted report. The problem is that it is not a realistic prospect even for a broadly pro-Islamic non-Muslim – one who is not likely to be entirely committed to the view (as the school’s mission statement puts it) “that there is nothing or no one worthy of worship other than Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala (SWT) and that MUHAMMAD Sallallaahu’alaihi Wa Sallam ( SAWS) is the final Prophet and Messenger of Allah (SWT)”.
Dress is only the most obvious of these problems. According to the uniform rules published on the web, all the pupils must wear the hijab, even for PE. The whole framework of the school day and year is also (perfectly understandably given the Faith agenda) structured around Islamic worship, which extends far beyond daily prayers: there is an assembly in the morning and (according to the Ofsted report) a call to prayer each lunch time and prayers at the beginning and end of each lesson. Ramadan is observed. My question is not whether this fits the wishes of Muslim parents, or whether there should be the opportunity for Islamic dress and prayers at any school (for me, the jury is still out on that one). It is whether anyone outside Islam could plausibly integrate.
The curriculum reveals more difficulties. It seems fine enough to take Religious Studies from an Islamic point of view (and for many kids it could be a nice corrective to the pious, slightly liberal Christianity that still infects many RE lessons). Foreign languages are more of an issue. Although the prospectus hints that there might be a little French early in the school, once you get to years 10 and 11, the only foreign language appears to be Urdu. Again, I would dearly love Urdu and Arabic to be offered in more “mainstream” schools, alongside French, Spanish and (if only . . . ) German. But is this restricted diet really likely to appeal to those outside the faith?
The Blair government has up till now eagerly supported Faith Schools. Their exam results have a good deal to do with that. Feversham does extremely well at GCSEs – and recently had the best “value added score” of any school in the country (measured as the level of improvement between standard at entry and standard at GCSE). Like other Faith Schools it is doing more than its fair share towards the government’s blind race towards educational targets. But here those targets are coming at what could be a devastating cost to multi-cultural integration. Even with their GSCE records, the idea that there is ever likely to be a rush of non-faith kids to these schools is pie in the sky.