May 10, 2015 Abdul Haqq

Muslim Education in Britain during the 1990s: A synopsis

Muslim Education in Britain during the 1990s: A synopsis


The purpose of my 1997 study was to examine the implications of state funding on Muslim schools.

At that time only two Muslim schools had received state funding and this was after almost fifteen years of continuous petitioning by the Muslim communities and their supporters. Muslim communities had, up until the then recent breakthrough of state funding for a few of their schools, (9th January 1998) questioned the reasons as to why the Government had repeatedly rejected their previous applications. After all;

“ Muslims have the right under the 1944 Education Act to set up their own separate Voluntary schools ( cr. Swann Report, 1985, p499 ); such schools are financed mainly by the State but have the freedom, within certain boundaries, to determine their own admissions policy and form of religious education and worship.”  Halstead [1986 p1]

The realisation of Muslims having their own state funded schools caused jubilation for some and concern for others, reflecting the wide range of feelings and interest this issue has generated over the years;

I have been getting calls… congratulating the school on the historic achievement” and, “ There’ll be jubilation as the news spreads.” (Zafar Ashraf, Parents’ spokesman for Islamia School, one of the  schools granted state funding on 9th January 1998 – The Times newspaper 10th January 1998 p.2).

In contrast the concerns over this apparent break through were highlighted by Dr Patrick Sookhedo of the Institute for the study of Islam and Christianity, when he claimed that such schools could be

“breeding grounds for extremism.” (The Daily Mail, 10th January1998, p.30).

Many authors have argued vehemently in favour of Muslim schools receiving state funding. However, at the time (i.e. 1998) few, if any, appeared to be examining or indeed, discussing the possible implications of state funding on such schools.

Certain questions needed answering. For example, was there a significant proportion from Muslim communities that preferred that all Muslim schools remain totally independent from the state? Did such state funding bring with it compromise in essential Islamic principles and the overall ethos of these schools?

My dissertation focussed on the second question posed, examining the implications of state funding and whether it carried stringent conditions which, in effect, would force a school to compromise its fundamental religious values / ethos thereby removing it from the ideal perspective of what an Islamic school should be. After all, a School for Muslims is not necessarily an Islamic one, as shall be discussed shortly.

Having said this, the case for having independent schools for Muslims, as opposed to providing an Islamic curriculum in non – denominational state schools, requires a brief discussion. This paper will therefore, also highlight some of the key factors on why it was important at the time for independent schools for Muslims to emerge and coexist  alongside other denominational or value-led schools within the British society because, after all:

“Muslim pupils have special needs by virtue of their identity and adherence…”

                                                                      M.Parker – Jenkins [1995 p.59]

The mere provision of an Islamically orientated curriculum or programme in the normal state schools was regarded as satisfactory, in most cases, to imbue Muslim pupils with the desired Islamic identity that is supposed to permeate every aspect of their lives. A Muslim environment should exist for the pupil where s/he could develop every aspect of their character, academically, mentally, physically and spiritually, thereby avoiding the conflict so often witnessed amongst Muslim children attending state schools;

“No child should be expected to cast off the language and culture of the home as he crosses the school threshold, nor live and act as though the school and home represent two totally separate and different cultures which have to be kept apart.”

                                       The Bullock Report (‘A Language for Life’ [1975, p.286])

Many independent schools continued to attract pupils whose parents felt that the state system contained inadequacies or simply did not meet their own particular educational requirements.

The change of government at the time in 1997 witnessed the renewed vigour and success of various Muslim communities across Britain in petitioning for the state funding of some schools. This had been an issue which generated interest amongst Muslim communities for as long as Muslim educational needs had not been sufficiently met in state schools. The fact that Muslim state schools already existed in other European countries, Denmark and Sweden for example, exacerbated the situation in the UK at the time. These countries had clearly adhered to their own legislation when allowing such schools to exist;

“The bottom line is that private schools will be recognised and receive government financing regardless of the ideological, religious, political or ethnic motivation behind their establishment.” 

Private schools in Denmark, Ministry of Education and Research, Copenhagen [1992]

The 1944 Education Act, section 13, paragraph 2, although not as explicit, appeared to echo similar objectives;

“Where any persons propose that any school established by them or by persons whom they represent which at the time being is not a voluntary school, or any school proposed to be so established, should be maintained by a local education authority, as a voluntary school, they shall after consultation with the authority submit proposals for that purpose to the Minister.”


Part 1: A measure of Muslim Education

By providing a continuum highlighting the extremes of these strands I shall be able to describe the ideological positioning of some of the Muslim schools / educational institutions more clearly:

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 15.05.14This continuum became the measure by which I determined the position of Muslim Educational institutions in the UK.

Moral Religious Institutions and Practices

These institutions were, by and large, the mosques and Islamic centres. They were often the backbone of a local community and become the ‘stepping stone’ for other projects. Activities included the five daily prayers, Islamic studies and Qur’ânic recitation. Classes for students attending full – time schools usually took place late afternoon / early evening. It was from these madrassahs that the Dar ul Uloom  (literal translation: Place of sciences) stemmed from.

Dar ul Uloom

Dar ul Uloom’s initial focus was on teaching Islam; however an increasing number began to include secular subjects in their curriculum. A strong emphasis would be on memorisation of the Qur’ân and learning many of the Islamic sciences. Knowledge of secular/academic subjects had to be acquired from other institutions of education.

Before describing the ideal, balanced ‘Islamic school’ it is necessary to describe the other extreme of the continuum.

Academic & Secular study

The position of academic/secular study was always clear. This referred to state educational and non denominational institutions from nursery schools right up to universities, covering a wide range of studies, at varying levels. These institutions promoted multi – faith policies in an attempt to facilitate a spectrum of religious adherence and in doing so, they encompassed the sea of European and British legislation which supported multi – culturalism. Williams (1981, p236) characterised multicultural education using three key assumptions:

(a) that by learning his cultural and ethnic “roots” an ethnic child would improve his educational achievement;

(b) the closely related claim that learning about his culture, its traditions and so on would improve equality of opportunity and;

(c) that learning about other cultures would reduce children’s (and adults) prejudice and discrimination towards those from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

In fact, these assumptions formed the bedrock of multi – cultural education policies during the 1970’ and 80’s.

School for Muslims

The ‘School for Muslims’ has been placed next to the ‘Academic & secular’ end of the continuum because in some areas, e.g. Tower Hamlets in London and Bradford, Muslims attending state schools form the overall majority. These schools adhere to state legislation such as the National Curriculum. While an ‘inferred curriculum’ may also exist, thereby facilitating some of the more Islamic aspects or requirements of Muslim students, they still abide by the multi – faith policies and doctrines in accordance with government stipulations.

This type of school was, in essence, similar to other schools but is independent and largely run by Muslim administrators. A vague thread of Islamic principles may have formed a superficial part of the ethos, however, the most noticeable aspect of the school was the absence of multi – faith doctrines and policies by which the school would otherwise had to adhere. This second type was one of the main focuses of study in 1997.

Islamic School

Arguably, the most ideal perspective for many Muslim communities will have been the ‘Islamic school’ at the centre of the continuum where:

“Academic subjects, whilst important, are taught on a par close to but not exceeding the Islamic Curriculum.” [Baker (1997, p. 4)].

In addition to this, the Islamic school would have attempted to avoid the division between secular and religious education. Islam would have indeed permeated every aspect of the school curriculum. It would have formed the basis of every subject. This type of school would offer the sort of education envisaged by section 1 (2) (a) of the 1988 Education Reform Act;

“…a balanced curriculum which… promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society.”

Part 2: The Pluralist perspective: Cultural pluralism


According to Halstead, (1986 p.6), Cultural pluralism refers to; “… the acceptance within a society of differences in the beliefs, values and traditions to which members of that society have a commitment.”

Among the principles of Cultural Pluralism is that each group has the right to retain its distinctive culture so long as it does not conflict with the shared values of the society as a whole. The education of each child should, in view of this principle, include knowledge of the diversity of lifestyles and cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds, which comprise today’s society.

The concept of Cultural Pluralism, with its underlying principles, appears straight forward. It contains nothing that opposes the establishment of separate Muslim schools. Having said this, any effects would invariably depend on the type of Muslim school that was being established. For such principles to be applicable in a Muslim school it would have to adopt the position of the ‘school for Muslims’ simply because of the less stringent religious emphasis that would exist in this type of school. The more mid – continuum ‘Islamic school’ or ‘Dar ul Uloom’ are likely to challenge some principles of Cultural Pluralism, especially where the acceptance of and, participation in shared values, are required. The problem arises when actually defining what ‘shared values’ are. These could well differ from culture to culture, society to society, religion to religion.

Halstead (1986) also questions the problematical concept of ‘shared values’, querying what would actually happen in the event of disagreement over fundamental values. Shared values, again therefore, take on a variety of meanings for different cultures.

A clear example of this dilemma can be seen from the following article, written over 20 years ago. The Independent published the article entitled; “Children from all faiths tell the Christmas Story.” It went on to report that:

 “Today it is common for children of other religions to take part in nominally Christian events. As well as appearing in nativity plays, Muslims, Hindu and Sikh children learn to sing carols, send Christmas cards and make Advent calendars…. At other times of the year, the whole school recognises different festivals…” (14th December 1992 p.10)

Halstead previously observed that: Separatism is at least an open statement of bias rather than cultural domination in disguise…” (1986, p.9). Such an observation could be considered apt in view of the article referred to.

Part 3: Arguments against the establishment of Muslim schools

In view of the many changes made to the National Curriculum and the introduction of the Education Reform Act 1988 during the late 80’s/early 90’s, children from all cultures and religions were more widely catered for. For example, Muslim pupils, especially in boys’ schools were able to attend the Jumua (Friday congregational) prayer; they were allowed to take off religious holidays and Halal meat was provided in some schools. Some educationalists argued that, in view of such far reaching changes over that period, establishing independent schools of any kind would contribute to causing a division between cultures and religions in what was clearly a multi-cultural society.  More specifically, arguments were put forward that separate Muslim schools were actually socially divisive to British society, (Asian Youth Movement, Bradford, 1983 ).

Some Muslim communities  feared that separate schools would further alienate their children. This might, in turn, have resulted in what the National Union of Teachers (NUT, 1984, p.1) described as “ghettoising” some Muslim communities. The result, some feared, would prove catastrophic, especially in view of the Muslim’s efforts to integrate, sharing some of the common values prevalent in the wider society. The knock on effect would be to facilitate discrimination against Muslims in the employment market and, on the whole, increase the difficulties of Muslim children growing up in the society. The Swann Report (p.510) echoed similar concerns about separate schools for Muslims saying they might;

“…exacerbate the very feelings of rejection and of not being accepted as full members of our society which they were seeking to overcome.”

It was surprising to note the concern expressed here in the Swann Report, particularly bearing in mind the earlier somewhat contradictory statement contained in their report which expressed, more blatantly, their concern over Muslim schools as a threat to the; “… stability and cohesion of society as a whole.” (HMSO 1985 p.7)

It was no surprise why some from Muslim communities viewed such reports with suspicion, considering comments like this.

Further counter arguments included the claim that there is a need to keep Muslim children in multicultural schools, so as to help the white majority shed its racist tendencies, (Swann Report, p. 510). This observation reflected the exploitative tendencies towards a minority religion in Britain.

Yet another counter argument was that Muslim schools would be used as institutions promoting undemocratic methodologies, such as the indoctrination of children. In fact, liberal educationists considered this to be the worst thing to do educationally to children. They held personal autonomy to be the major priority of education, (Halstead 1986). Some of the counter arguments pertaining to indoctrination included the following:

1. “Schools which have the ‘intention of committing children to a set of beliefs…. are guilty of indoctrination…” (Barrow 1891 p.150) “… particularly if the aim is to make the beliefs unshakeable ones.” (White 1967, p.189, Flew 1972, p.75);

2. Indoctrination is immoral because, ultimately it implies a lack of respect for persons by denying them;

“… independence and control over their lives.” (Kleinig 1982, p.65);

3. Religious instruction is a model case of indoctrination; Flew (1972, p.106) observed that; “ The most successful programme of indoctrination is that schools which maintain their separate and independent existence precisely in order to inculcate belief in the doctrines…” In this regard he was referring specifically to the Roman Catholic Church.

The arguments regarding indoctrination could be used, to an extent in relation to state schools as indeed, multi – faith ethics, which go hand in hand with multi – culturalism prevalent throughout such schools is viewed by many to be a means by which to strip and confuse children about basic universal concepts of the major religions. In addition to this the arguments against ‘schools of indoctrination’, no matter how old they may be, have not prevented the establishment of numerous independent schools from a variety of denominations. Such schools are mostly funded by the state.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 15.15.52

State funded religious schools in England (January 1996) – Source: DfEE Statistical Branch

The table above provided a stark picture of the reality regarding state funding for Muslim schools in comparison to other denominations up until 9th January 1998.


An interesting observation was made by one respondent from Islamia School regarding state funding at that time:

“… Muslim schools now have a say in the education system of this country, which they didn’t have in the past.”

Unsurprisingly, the other three teachers who were teaching in state schools felt it a natural progression that Muslim schools also receive funding similar to other denominational schools.

All interview respondents confirmed the benefits of state funding, such as adequate human and financial resources. Each school would then be in a position to deliver the school curriculum more effectively.

Another respondent, again from Islamia School, noted the added difficulties funding could bring in the way of bureaucracy and local competition with other funded schools. This, he described, could occur when submitting applications to the education authorities for projects amidst, for example, another ninety schools in the same borough doing exactly the same thing. This, he acknowledged, would make each application more difficult to be approved.

When asked about the key factors that would affect each school’s decision to apply for funding, the respondents provided a wide range of answers.

For the Head teacher of Feversham in Bradford at the time, parental choice was a major reason for proceeding towards state funding, so that: “… they can send their children to a Muslim school, if they wish to do so. There are Christian schools, Jewish schools….”

Despite the moral religious issues surrounding the whole climate over the principles of funding, the respondents interviewed affirmed that their respective schools’ continued to face challenges in relation to resources. These factors were enough to consider state funding as the only viable alternative to alleviating each schools’ present, short and long term resourcing challenges – both human and financial.

Upon being asked whether funding would affect each school’s policies, ethos and religious direction, one respondent was emphatic in stating;

“…the funding granted to this school was on the basis that the secular state had approved funding for a Muslim school. It’s very clear in the application… therefore, funding should be on that basis.”

The Principal at Iqra Independent  School was resigned to the inevitability of having to compromise some aspects of the existing curriculum but felt that the overall effect on school policy etc. would be minimal. He stressed that, so long as the school management and teachers were at the helm of major developments, any drastic or controversial changes could be minimised.

The other respondent from Iqra Independent School did not share this view. While he considered funding as something that could be positive, there was the decisive factor of “outside control” on the curriculum which would impede the school in some respect, i.e. teaching topics that conflicted with basic Islamic tenets.

The respondents from two of the case study schools confirmed the amount of time allocated to both secular and Islamic subjects in the curriculum. Feversham and Islamia both apportion their curriculums on a 87.5% – 12.5% basis, the larger apportionment being towards academic subjects. Supplementary time was given for assemblies and prayer in both schools.

The final supplementary question dealt with the five respondents from the case study schools perception of their schools – did they consider them ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’, (according to the definitions provided earlier in this paper). All respondents felt that their respective schools were closer to the ideal of the ‘Islamic’ school. It was, however, interesting to note one respondent saying:

“… If I compare Islamia School to other schools Islamia is far ahead in every respect… I would also say we have to go a long way where Tarbiyyah (Islamic cultivation) for our children is concerned. For that you need committed Muslim teachers who have a thorough knowledge of Islam. So even if they are teaching Chemistry or Physics, from there they can also convey the message of Islam, what Islam says about a particular topic…”

In effect, he considered that the ideal school, which would have an Islamised curriculum, could not exist until Muslim teachers were themselves sufficiently equipped to deliver academic subjects and highlight their relevance with Islam.

One of the case study schools, Iqra Independent found its positioning between the ‘Dar ul Uloom’ and ideal ‘Islamic’ school end of the continuum. The school was moving steadily across the continuum, from the ‘Moral Religious Institutions’ at its inception, (and possibly past the centre,) towards the ‘School for Muslims’ end, in view of the realisation that state funding was the only viable alternative for the school’s survival.


Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 15.16.43

Continuum highlighting each school’s position

It can perhaps be deduced that a Muslim school with a more Islamic ethos, which permeates the entire school structure, is hegemonically influenced by the religion of Islam itself. On the other hand, the school which focuses more on Muslim identity appears to be intrinsically influenced by the dictates of the society within which it exists.

In the UK therefore, the likelihood of there existing a state funded Islamic school appears remote as it would be considered by many to be a contradiction in terms. This would simply be due to the independence/lack of outside interference relating to the school on one hand and, on the other, a state system which required certain statutory conditions be in place before funding was even permitted.

Back to the future – Paradigmatic shifts and changes to the existing landscape post 2000

In light of the shift in the socio-religious environment across Europe and the US following 9/11, 7/7, the Madrid bombings etc. a comprehensive review of Muslim engagement, including Muslim education has been made by governments, educationalist and practitioners alike. Although many still advocate the right for Muslim communities to establish their own schools, a significant voice has risen to articulate that Muslim religious education should be within the framework of public schools to enable an accurate contextualisation for Muslim and non-Muslim pupils regarding the compatibility of the religion with intrinsic aspects of the societies in which they reside and co-exist. This paper has been extracted from MBA (Education) studies that date back to a time when state funding for Muslim schools was considered an anomaly. In 2014, state funded Muslim schools are now an intrinsic part of British society and have been overwhelmingly successful in removing previous arguments against their initial establishment. The first schools to have received such funded should be lauded as successful pioneers in view of the platform they set for other schools to follow. Further comparative studies are always welcome regarding the contribution of Muslim education in Britain, particularly following the decision to provide funding. Studies that also illustrate the historical development of such schools alongside a possible trajectory of how it is progressing would also prove to be insightful.

A new Chief Minister and his cabinet were sworn in today, after their party did well in the state elections here earlier in December.
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