UK debate about faith schools hots up
A new opinion survey, published today by ICM and the Guardian newspaper, indicates that the British public are increasingly concerned about the presence and growth of faith-based schools, a major plank of the Labour government's educational reforms.
Meanwhile campaigners in Scotland are working to save the last independent Muslim school in Dundee, saying that such institutions can help promote mainstream understandings of Islam, to the benefit of the wider community.
But among those randomly surveyed countrywide under the rules of the British Polling Council, 64 per cent felt that 'the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind'.
Another 25 per cent backed faith schools as an important part of the education system, while 8 per cent felt that Christian and Jewish schools should be state funded, but not Muslim ones.
Analysts suggest that opinion has shifted on the issue in the wake of July's bombs in London, with more people fearing that religion can be a divisive factor in national life, having an adverse impact on social cohesion.
Of the 7,000 state funded faith schools in England at the moment, 6,955 are Christian (mostly Church of England or Catholic), 36 are Jewish, five are Muslim and two are Sikh.
Meanwhile the government has already given £100,000 to assist the development of 120 independent Muslim schools, and in the autumn plans to make it easier for such institutions to opt into the state sector and gain much greater financial support.
The Church of England remains committed to church schools as a major part of its work. It argues that they are plural in their approach and popular with those who do not have a Christian commitment because of their overall ethos and record.
But others, like the National Secular Society, say that religion has too much influence in education and wishes to see faith-based schools removed from the state sector altogether.
And last week the Daily Telegraph suggested that Prime Minister Tony Blair is having doubts about controversial plans he previously announced to set up 200 privately sponsored academy schools by 2010.
The argument has been complicated in recent weeks by a growing debate about ways in which the mainstreaming of minority groups can help to eliminate extremist ideas which could be a breeding ground for violence.
Ms Gaye Nicholson, head teacher at the Imam Muhammad Zakariya girl's school in Dundee told the Herald newspaper that Islamic studies can help promote integration. She suggested that the London bombers might not have 'been so susceptible to a distortion of the Qur'an' if they had attended a Muslim school.
However, those against faith-based education say that in the state system there is a proper distinction between teaching about religion and other life stances, and forming people for religious commitment. The latter is the business of private religious institutions not public education, they argue.
The latest ICM polling also suggests that three-quarters of Britons are willing to trade off some civil liberties for greater security.