Nearer and nearer draws the time when Muslim parents will have the same rights to send their children to state schools of their own religious persuasion. This week, the Funding Agency for Schools inspected the Islamia School in north London, and 20 others are going through the process this year. For how much longer can the agency refuse state status? It seems to be fast running out of excuses. Islamia and several others top their local league tables, so they pass at least a narrowly defined quality threshold, one of the criteria for gaining state funding. With a waiting list of a thousand, it can hardly be argued that there is insufficient "demand". Eventually, a high proportion of Britain's 400,000 Muslim children could end up isolated in sectarian schools.
Does it matter? It means the state will educate children to believe women are of inferior status, one step behind in the divine order of things. The state will acquiesce in the repression of young girls, putting their parents' cultural rights above the duty to educate all British girls equally. Many Muslim women protest that this is their own cultural choice. All very well for adults to make those choices, but should the state education system encourage such ideas being taught to young children?
But it is hard to find any good reason for denying them state support while granting it to other faiths. Many describe all too painfully what has passed for "education" by state-funded Christian Brothers or bigoted nuns. Since the start of free education, the state has paid for Anglican schools, embracing them in the same sort of pragmatic compromise that let GPs remain as private contractors at the start of the NHS. The 1902 Balfour Education Act extended the same rights to other denominations - though the Protestants fulminated against "Rome on the rates". Now we shall have Mecca on the rates, too.
No reason why Moonies, Scientologists or Mormons might not follow, if there were enough of them and they fulfilled the rest of the criteria. For how is the state to differentiate between cults, cranks, fruitcakes and true believers? Religious belief is set oddly apart from all other aspects of human emotional, political and intellectual life. There would be an outcry if the state were to fund a Marxist or a monetarist school, a feminist, Freudian, astrological or New Age school. Parents are rightly indignant if some lefty teacher gives a purely Marxist version of history. So why tolerate religious ideology?
Some parents protest that no education is value free, so they want their own values taught. Or rather, they object that schools are too value free. This is nonsense, in that all good schools struggle hard to inculcate secular moral precepts. Religious parents object even more strongly to the sort of multi-faith teaching that suggests all religions are equally true. Young children hopping home with Diwali songs mixed in the carols taught by non-believing teachers does little to please anyone. It would be better for all state education to eschew religion. For there is a profound conflict between education, designed to create questioning minds, and religion, which demands a leap of faith without question.
Politically, religious segregation is dangerous. Globally, fear and loathing of Islam is approaching Cold War proportions. In Northern Ireland, sectarian education has been the main instrument of conflict. …