Sorry, but not all faith schools are the same in a Christian society
Rod Liddle says that the case of the Muslim King Fahad Academy shows that you cannot encourage rampant diversity and then be surprised when the consequence is sectarianism At last, a British school where pupils are inculcated in a strict moral code, but also taught to think for themselves. Get your kids' names down for the King Fahad Academy in Acton, west London, quick.
It's a Muslim faith school, as you might have guessed from its title, but don't let that put you off. The pupils, from the age of five, are taught that Christians are 'pigs' and Jewish people are 'apes' — none of that dripping-wet equivocation you get from the national curriculum. And crucially, while the teaching is strict, the children are rewarded for ingenuity and inventiveness. For example, they are asked to think up 'some repugnant characteristics of Jews'. Terrific stuff — exactly the sort of lesson I'd have enjoyed as a schoolkid. I rang the academy and asked them if they might be able to fax over a list of their top ten repugnant characteristics of Jews, as provided by the student body — just so my own kids can see the sort of standard they'll need to aim for — but they weren't willing to do this for some reason. That's a shame. A spokesman for the school told me he couldn't speak to me, but directed me to a press statement put out by the school's director which denies 'all' the allegations about the place. Awww, come on, guys, why hide your light under a bushel? 'What do you tell your pupils about Jews and Christians, then, if you don't say they are apes and pigs?' I asked. But they wouldn't tell me. Maybe they say Jews and Christians are just great — who knows?
These allegations have emanated from a 'disgruntled' former teacher, one Colin Cook, a Muslim convert. Cook is taking the school to an employment tribunal. He also points out that most of the teachers can't speak English and that girls receive a very different education from that afforded to the boys. I suppose you have to allow that he might, out of spite, be telling porkies, if you'll pardon the unfortunate pun. That's what the school says, at least. On the other hand, its sister academy in Bonn has been under investigation by the German intelligence service, who worry that somewhere along the line there's a link to Islamic terrorism. And apparently the offspring of Abu Qatada — `Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man' and `al-Qa'eda's representative in Europe', as he is most commonly described — attend the place. So come on — if it's good enough for old Abu, it's good enough for me. In any case, the school has charitable status, and it wouldn't have that unless it was proved that it was of a benefit to the wider community. So QED then.
It may come as a surprise to some people that we are effectively subsidising this Saudifunded establishment, not least because Ofsted was not hugely impressed by the place during its last visit in March 2006. Nor am I sure how the school will cope if it is required to accept 25 per cent of its pupils from faiths other than Islam, as the government has insisted new faith schools must do. Will there be a queue around the block of pigs and apes, clutching the hands of their little piglets and apelets?
There is an argument against faith schools which says that they are terribly divisive and should therefore be closed down, the whole lot. Almost all of the people who take this line insist that if you're going to close down Muslim faith schools (of which there are only eight in Britain), then you should close down the Church of England schools too, out of `fairness'. Equal-handed treatment and so on. I've never really understood this argument — even though, as it happens, I don't have much time for faith schools of any religious hue. It seems to me that as the foundations of our country — its moral code, its democratic character and so on — are predominantly Christian, then Christian faith schools must by necessity militate against divisiveness in society and so are a very different kettle of fish to, say, Muslim faith schools. I can see why there might be good, principled objections to this notion in Northern Ireland, where Catholic and Protestant schools have, by their mere existence, helped cement sectarian differences. But not, in general, throughout mainland Britain. It would certainly seem to me that, at the very least, the King Fahad Academy and other schools like it will probably be falling short of the desired mark in inculcating a sense of Britishness in its pupils; inculcating instead a sense of utter separateness. And, if Mr Cook's allegations are to be believed, outright hostility and racial hatred.
But the debate should go further than this. Do you remember the case of Shabina Begum, the Muslim schoolgirl who fought to be allowed to wear the full niqab at her local state school? It occurred to me at the time that the difference between what she wanted to wear to school and what she was already allowed to wear was pretty minuscule. The state school (in Luton) was praised in the media at the time for the way in which it had bent over backwards to accommodate the desires of 'local community leaders'; in other words, it had adapted its own uniform so that Muslim girls could go to school dressed pretty much from top to toe in hessian sacking, as their fathers desired. This concession thus subverted the whole point, meaning and purpose of the term 'uniform'. And it must have entrenched racial and religious differences between pupils in the school.
I ought to say that almost all inner-city schools behave likewise, out of a sort of vague and misplaced nod towards tolerance of diversity. But you cannot have such diversity and also expect there to be a sense of homogeneity and common, shared principles. The current debate as to what extent of cultural diversity is desirable or allowable in British society is easily decided if you make an abrupt and clear separation between the public and the private. Hence in schools, which exist in the public sphere, pupils should wear the same clothing and be treated as equals, regardless of their differing religious backgrounds. No concessions. Muslim girls can always go home and slip into their niqabs once the school bell has sounded. Or, better still, you might hope that they won't.
Mr Cook's employment tribunal will take place later this year, by which time we may all have forgotten about the King Fahad Academy and its vigorous curriculum. But it will still be there, doing its important work.