“I worry that many young people are being educated in faith-based schools with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society. Many of these new faith schools are being opened by a younger generation of British Muslims, who recognize that traditional Islamic education does not entirely fit pupils for their lives as Muslims in modern Britain,” Bell says.
Bell went on to say many students of faith-based schools would emerge well informed about their particular religion but not about other faiths and cultures. This, said the school inspector, would pose a danger to what he called the "cohesion" of a pluralistic society like Britain's.
Bell's comments sparked a wave of controversy within the Muslim community. Inayat Bunglawala is spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain.
“We believe his comments were quite unfortunate, because it did have precisely that effect of singling out Muslim schools quite unfairly. And I think it’s distorted the debate, and it’s allowed people to engage in a very inflammatory way against the Muslim community," Bunglawala says.
Bunglawala says the issue is being blown out of proportion. Out of Britain's 370,000 Muslim pupils, he says, only 3 percent attend faith-based schools. The vast majority attend regular state schools, some of which are Muslim-majority but not faith-based.
Some education experts defend Bell's position. Peter Riddell specializes in interfaith relations at London Bible College.
“There are a number of schools that receive state funding. And in order to receive state funding, they have to prove that they are working within the national curriculum. The fact is that there are many Muslim schools in this country. Some are working within the national curriculum, and some are not. So, his comments are not directed at all Muslim schools but some Muslim schools. And, I think due consideration should be given to his call,” Riddell said.
Other experts say there are legitimate concerns about Muslim faith-based schools, and that curriculum guidelines should be enforced to ensure that students are learning about more than religion. John Marks directs the Educational Research Trust in London.
“They would put much more time and emphasis on things like studying the Koran, studying the Hadith [eds: sayings of the Prophet Muhammad] and Muslim history. Some Muslim schools in other countries have half or 60 percent of their time devoted to this, which leaves very little for central subjects in the curriculum. The other issue is, should they have some sort of citizenship classes introducing them to the history of British institutions. And, something of a history of how we came to be such a diverse and tolerant society. And, maybe, something on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Marks says.
Riddell adds that another issue is that most Christian schools, unlike Muslim schools, admit pupils from other faiths, thus helping integration.
“You find Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish students in Christian schools. So, all of that contributes to integration as well. However, in the case of the Muslim schools, one of the issues slowing down integration is that the schools are catering only for Muslim students. And, especially those outside the national curriculum present a much more Islamic curriculum than would be likely to attract students from other faith communities,” Riddell says.
Bunglawala admits that some Muslim schools are lagging behind, but he says they could be improved by being brought into the state sector and following a national curriculum. He also says the school inspection report also singles out Christian schools for criticism, saying they too fall short in terms of teaching about state educations and different religions.
“If you compare the results between the five Muslim schools that went to the state sector, all of them have gone on to become ‘beacon schools’. Take, for example, the all-girls Muslim school in Bradford called Faversham College. Last week it was awarded the number-one school status in the entire country for value-added progress -- meaning what its pupils' expected results are when they arrive at [the] age of 11, compared with what results they finally achieve at 16,” Bunglawala says.
Marks of the Educational Research Trust says while Britain's definition of citizenship could still evolve, the notions of plurality and respect must be a factor of education in all schools.
“I think that we are getting to a situation where there are potential crises in the 21st century which have not arisen before. We may need to look again at what we would want to be part of citizenship. I think that if people are coming with different faith traditions and cultural backgrounds to this country and want to be part of it, they need to understand our history and our traditions,” Marks says.
Marks says the best way forward is to ensure the continuation of public debate on the issue.