x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Ruling due over UK's first school for Muslims

Criticism levelled as Islamic community leaders question demand, and council submits plan for rival, non-faith institution.

London // Controversy is swirling around a plan to build Britain's first Islamic school where half the pupils would be non-Muslims. A decision is expected next month on whether Al Habib Islamic Education and Cultural Centre, a charitable foundation in Swindon, will be given approval for the plan, worth £7 million (Dh38m). The charity wants to build the 420-pupil primary school in a predominantly non-Muslim area. Half the children at the school, which would be state funded, would come from the immediate vicinity. The other 50 per cent will come from Muslim families farther afield.

Plans submitted for approval by the charity involve setting aside an hour of classroom time each day for studying the Quran and Arabic. Non-Muslim pupils would not be obliged to attend these classes, but the charity hopes the majority would do so. "The school will follow the national curriculum and have teachers from different faiths," a spokesman for Al Habib said. "We will be there to provide guidance in religious teaching but we want pupils to understand about all faiths, not just Islam."

The centre would run similarly to other denominational schools, the spokesman said. According to the Times Educational Supplement: "The plan marks a significant development for minority faith schools, which have traditionally been set up to deal with overwhelming demand from pupils from one religion." However, the plan has drawn criticism from both Muslims and non-Muslims, not least because the local council also wants to build a rival, non-faith school in the same area.

"I am very surprised about these plans," said Azim Khan, the chairman of the local Islamic association. "I think they should have asked people in the community before putting in their bid, to make sure the need was there. I'm not sure that Swindon is a big enough place for this kind of school." Iftikhar Ahmad, who runs the London School of Islamics, a Muslim educational trust, said: "In my opinion, the multi-faith school is not going to be successful because non-Muslim parents would not send their children.

"British schooling has been trying to integrate and assimilate the Muslim community through education in the name of integration. "Bilingual Muslim children need state-funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods." The local authority, meanwhile, said it wanted to build a secular school because all available places are needed for children from all faiths within the immediate vicinity.

Garry Perkins, a member of the council, said the number of Muslim families living in the area of north Swindon was in single digits and that, in the whole of the Wiltshire town, there were only 163, primary school-aged Muslim children. "I do not believe there is even strong demand for the school from the Muslim community in Swindon," he said. "Many are happy with our already diverse schools." Mr Perkins said demand for a new school in the area was high because of new housing projects in the area, resulting in many children having to be taken by bus to existing schools a considerable distance away.

However, Shahid Sahu, the chairman of Al Habib charity, accused opponents of the scheme of failing to look properly at the proposal. Mr Sahu, who eventually hopes that the school would cater to secondary pupils as well, said: "I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and I think the people who are worried about this bid should look carefully at what we want to do. "We are absolutely not taking school places away from local children - this is not a single faith school and we welcome all children. This school will promote cohesion and inclusion with all cultures."