There is a primary school in Bethnal Green that normally gets excellent results. But suddenly its performance slumped last year. I rang the deputy head and asked what had happened. She told me that seven or eight children in the fifth form had left to go to a new Islamic school nearby. Their replacements were not as advanced in their reading.
Later the same day I went to a school governor’s meeting the other side of London. I mentioned this little exodus. “Oh yes,” came the weary seen-that-before response. “We lost three children out of reception this year. They went to an Islamic school, too.”
There is something important going on here and there is going to be a dog-fight about what it means.
These schools are growing seriously fast.
Not only the Muslim ones but also Evangelical Christian ones. According to OFSTED, in the academic year 2004/04, the number of independent, faith-based schools jumped from 170 to 276. That is a rise of over 60 per cent in a single year. The trend is continuing, based on anecdotal evidence. Numbers at the existing schools are probably growing, too. It seems likely that more than eleven per cent of all independent schools in Britain are now Jewish, Muslim or Evangelical and cater to parents who are not well off at all.
The default reaction of ultra-conservative centre-leftists like Jeremy Paxman is to be worried, if not angy and appalled. That is the reaction he exhibited when he interviewed David Bell, the chief inspector of schools who reported earlier this year that some Muslim schools were not, in his opinion, providing enough of an understanding of other faiths and “the wider tenets of British society”. Paxman, a soi-disant tolerant liberal, wanted these schools to be forced to teach these things – the sort that he believes in himself.
Presumably he wants children to be taught what he likes to imagine are his own virtues and values: democracy, women’s rights, individualism, state welfare, tolerance (we may allow ourselves a wry smile at this one) and so on. But his tolerance gives out – big time – when it comes to children being taught anything else. Underlying this kind of angry reaction is a fear that some children are being taught Muslim fundamentalism and even that they will be turned into gun-wielding terrorists.
Actually something very different is going on – something the BBC and most other parts of the media have not begun to grasp.
Calm down Jeremy. This is not about religious fanaticism, let alone terrorism. I asked Ghulam Rasool, the head of Al-Hijra School and College for boys in Birmingham, why parents send their children to his school. He said the prime reason was not the Muslim faith at all. The parents want their children to be taught “good values”. They intend their children to be learn respect for themselves and others. They want good manners. More selfishly, they want the children to show respect to their elders (ie themselves), to be obedient, to be confirmed in the idea of the family and extended family as units to which they should be loyal. They want their children to continue to believe, as they do, that children have a duty to look after their parents in old age.
These are values, which are “very common”, he said, and not particularly Muslim. Well, they used to be common. They are values which Michael Young, the writer of the famous Labour Party manifesto in 1945, found when, soon afterwards, he studied the working class in the East End. They are values which have fallen into disuse in Britain, being increasingly replaced by a culture of selfish individualism.
I recently talked to a mother of two children at an Evangelical school in West London. She had been giving up 40 per cent of her net income to send her children there. Again, it was not primarily about religion. She had realised her elder son – at a comprehensive in Westminster – was being led towards a life of crime. She sent him to his faith-based school to save his future.
These new faith-based schools create children who are more decent, kind and civilised than most others. The more children who go to them, the more civilised and decent Britain will be. Those of us who care more about our country than the ideology of state schooling, need not be appalled at their rapid growth. We should rejoice and give them all possible support.
The above is the unedited version of an article which appears in this week’s Times Educational Supplement. It was written before the bombings. I still think I was right to suggest that these schools do not, of themselves, do anything to encourage terrorism. In fact the reverse may even be true. I notice that one of the suspected terrorists was a young man called Hasib Mir Hussain. According to the Daily Mail, a friend of his who wished to remain anonymous said about his school days, “It was always whites against Asians and there were so many fights. Hasib was really quiet and didn’t get into any fights himself but he was in the thick of gangs that did. Maybe that played a part in making hin feel alienated from the country of his birth and Western society”.
One could well imagine that it would.