If you were to believe the myopic mainstream media (and, let's face it, most people do), Michael Gove's free school programme is spawning a wave of taxpayer-funded madrasahs, each one covertly indoctrinating the next generation of murderous Islamists by inculcating a hatred of British history, culture and Christian traditions through 'creeping sharia'. These schools are a manifest hindrance to social cohesion, pose an existential threat to our peace and security, and constitute a menace to liberal democracy itself.
As Exhibit A, they hold up the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby, where female non-Muslim staff are obliged to dress 'decently', which apparently includes wearing a hijab. No staff or students - whatever their beliefs - may eat 'non-halal' (ie haram) foodstuffs; girls are forced to sit at the back of the class behind the socially superior boys (and they are segregated for lunch as well); staff do not appear to be required to undertake DBS (CRB) checks; and in lessons all "sensitive, inaccurate and potentially blasphemous material with be censored or removed completely. If and when teachers are required by the curriculum to convey teachings that are totally against Islam, the Director of Islamic Studies will brief the relevant teachers and advise accordingly".
They define 'against Islam' as 'Darwinism'.
This school, its critics aver, is a law unto itself, and the law is most concerningly that of Allah. This has no place in the state system of education, and has caused even reasoned and intelligent politicians like Labour's Tom Harris MP to come out against faith-based education altogether. Yes, just because of one failing Muslim school in 3,500 state secondary schools, Mr Harris advocates closing all Church of England, Roman Catholic and Jewish voluntary aided or voluntary controlled schools as well, just in case one of them were to become subversively cultic and coercively authoritarian.
Two points are worth making. Firstly, for Christians, all people are our neighbour and we are commanded to love them, and that includes Muslims. A school is not some utilitarian instrument for the manufacture of cyborgs for the amelioration of the state's GDP: it is a community of people - each one of whom has feelings, hurts and needs - concerned with the development of future mothers, fathers, employees and benevolent citizens. The closure of the Al-Madinah school inflicts suffering upon the children whose education is being disrupted, and worry upon hundreds of parents as they look anxiously around for alternatives. The Christian response should be one of understanding and compassion, not scorn and judgment.
Secondly, Conservatives believe in the inalienable right of parents to be the primary educators of their children. We tend to respect the rights to freedom of belief and to education in accordance with that belief where it coheres with the common good, the advancement of enlightenment and the development of social wellbeing. Conservatives acknowledge and understand the desire of parents to bring up their children within a framework of belief, and support the state (ie publicly funded schools) where the instilling of religious faith and a moral worldview is a virtue in itself. Conservatives ought not to favour the abolition of state-funded faith schools, and certainly not with any appeal to Article 2 of the Human Rights Act. That countries such as France and the United States have secular state education is immaterial: our history, traditions, institutions and democratic development are different.
It is the Socialist instinct to destroy the ethos of faith schools and force them to conform to a simplistic, illiberal and ultimately totalitarian politically-correct ‘equality’ agenda which has no space for the religious conscience. Secular bodies are increasingly interfering in the admissions policies of faith schools, thereby presuming to discern who does and does not subscribe to a particular basis of faith. If these schools no longer have the power to select children on religious grounds, it is difficult to discern how their distinct ethos can be maintained.
Schools and colleges have to cope with increasing ‘social engineering’ legislation which seeks to impose secular values on their distinct curriculum and ethos. Michael Gove understands this, and is broadening the tolerance of the state that was so constrained by New Labour. All that faith-based schools wish to do is educate children in accordance with their worldview - placing God at the centre of the formative process, teaching morals and spiritual values, with (for example) purity outside of marriage and fidelity within, providing a framework of discipline, imparting respect and tolerance, instilling obedience to scripture and to orthodoxy.
One failing Muslim school does not undermine the case for fundamental religious liberty in education. Conservatives do not want to go down a route of secular reasoning, the logical consequence of which would be the closure of all church schools. Remember the words of Labour's Barry Sheerman MP, who revealingly once observed: “It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked. It does become worrying when you get a new push from more fundamentalist bishops. This is taxpayers' money after all.”
You may object to taxpayers' money funding the Al-Madinah school, but the alternative would be to drive this and other such schools into the private sector. It would then be beyond the reach of summary Ofsted inspection, free to impose its own unscrutinised curriculum, and would be vastly more unaccountable than any maintained academy or free school. Don't be persuaded by crass journalism and superficial reporting that the manifest failures of one Muslim school are somehow representative of all Muslim schools; or that the cultic practices of one faith school somehow justify the total separation of religion and education. They do not.