David Cameron used his recent speech at the Conservative Party Conference to announce that madrassas, Sunday schools, yeshivas and other religious institutions that teach children “intensively” will have to register with the Department for Education and will be subject to inspection.
The prime minister’s proposals mean that all religious supplementary schools in England that teach children for more than eight hours a week will be subject to inspection. Those that fail to meet the required standards or are found to be “teaching intolerence” will be shut down.
Cameron tried to be politically correct by referring to all religious institutions when announcing the policy. But it was obvious from his speech that it is primarily targeting Muslim madrassas. He prefaced it by expressing concern that “there are some children who spend several hours each day at a Madrassa” and that “in some madrassas we’ve got children being taught that they shouldn’t mix with people of other religions, being beaten, swallowing conspiracy theories about Jewish people”. By referring to “conspiracy theories about Jewish people” the prime minister is promoting a rift between communities which does not befit a national leader.
Commenting on Cameron’s speech, Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said:
There is real cause for concern in the constant use of madrassas and Muslim schools as the only examples of fundamentalist or extremist teaching. The government must recognise that indoctrination and intolerance are found in schools of all religions.
Copson claimed that “thousands of Jewish children in strictly orthodox yeshivas grow up learning no English, cut off from the rest of society and taught to fear or even hate those outside their immediate communities,” and he also mentioned indoctrination in some Christian schools.
There seems to be a complete lack of awareness around the challenges associated with this new policy, or why plans focused on regulating supplementary schools have been shelved in the past. A proposal for a voluntary code of conduct for some supplementary religious schools, which was shelved by the Department for Education as recently as 2014.
Muslim families targeted
The real issue here is the explicit targeting of a faith community who are already faced with educational, economic and social challenges. Instead of trying to understand and attend to these issues, Muslims are being exploited politically and held responsible for extremism, so increasing their marginalisation. Many earlier government initiatives and policies that aimed at alleviating this marginalisation have fallen short for young Muslims – such as the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, Every Child Matters, or Building Schools for Future.
The growth of supplementary Islamic faith schools in the West is a recent phenomenon. There are no precise statistics on how many supplementary religious schools exist in the UK, but it’s estimated to be between 3,000 to 5,000.
These schools have gained support and popularity in the era since the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses and since 9/11 in order to resist perceived threats from secular societies to Islamic culture, moral values, and Muslim identity. They have also been created to challenge exclusion in mainstream schools, and to enhance Muslim children’s educational achievement, job opportunities and upward social mobility.
Why a faith education
Concerns over low educational achievement of second, third or even fourth generation Muslims in the state system and the social, economic, and political marginalisation of Muslims in wider British society have acted as major drivers for some Muslim parents to send their children to full-time Islamic faith schools even when they have to pay fees.
The higher performance of Muslim children in these full-time faith schools increased the incentive to send children to faith schools. Yet there are a limited number of full-time Islamic faith schools in the UK. So, many Muslim parents whose children go to mainstream schools send them to supplementary Islamic schools, mosque schools and private part-time Islamic schools in after-school hours or at weekends to develop their sense of community and faith identity.
The prime minister is concerned that some children spend “several hours each day at a madrassa”. But the reason why many black and ethnic minority communities send their children to supplementary schools remains key here. The government needs to address the inequalities and discrimination in society – which Cameron also mentioned in his speech – that give people from ethnic minorities different life chances and can result in social divisions and alienation.
Dubbing Islamic supplementary schools as incubators for extremism and intolerance, and subjecting them to special regimes of inspection, could be as counterproductive as other counter-terrorism measures aimed at universities and schools. The educational, social and economic factors affecting the choices of families who send their children for supplementary education are being ignored in the political hype. Short-term political agenda is the priority here, rather than long-term societal cohesion.
But politicians should have learnt from the so-called Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham in 2014 that educational issues need to be attended to by educationalists – not by politicians or police. Political statements may win applause at party conferences, but they can also add to the estrangement of communities already at the receiving end of social alienation, economic marginalisation, and political point-scoring.