Britain's Muslims See Bias in State Aid Program for Schools

A MUSLIM school with 180 elementary-age pupils has become a test case of Britain's official policy of treating all ethnic and religious communities equally.

Groups representing the country's 2 million Muslims are accusing the government of discriminating against their faith by refusing to provide state funds to a prestigious Islamic educational institution while giving thousands of Christian private schools financial support.

The Islamia School in Brent, north of London, was founded 10 years ago by Yusef Islam, the former 1960s pop singer and composer once known as Cat Stevens, after he became a Muslim. Since then Mr. Islam has kept the school afloat with his private fortune.

Muslims regard the school as the best Islamic teaching institution in the country. It has a waiting list of 1,000. Competition for places is so fierce that many children's names are listed at birth.

In Britain, schools outside the state system can qualify for government funding if they meet the education department's criteria on curriculum and teaching standards. There are currently 2,000 Anglican, 2,100 Roman Catholic, 21 Jewish, and four Methodist state-aided schools in Britain.

When John Patten, the education secretary, visited Brent last June, staff at the school demonstrated to him that the school was meeting the government criteria. In addition, five hours a week is spent on traditional Islamic teaching in Arabic, including study of the Koran.

Mr. Patten said he was ``deeply impressed'' with the school's educational standard. But two months later Patten's department turned down Islamia's application for state funds. It was the school's second rejection.

In announcing the rejection on Aug. 19, Baroness Blatch, Patten's deputy, reaffirmed the grounds of the previous rejection: that the Brent area has a large number of vacant school places.

Her decision was immediately attacked by Ghulam Sarwar, director of the Muslim Educational Trust, who called it ``unjust and insensitive.''

Islam, who says state funding is necessary because he can no longer afford to support the school, accused the government of ``malicious prejudice'' against Britain's Islamic community.

MORE is at stake in the Islamia School controversy than money. The 1988 Education Reform Act requires that state schools should ``reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Britain are, in the main, Christian,'' although account should be taken of ``the teaching and practices of other principal religions.''

But Muslim parents who think this practice fails to do justice to their religious convictions, and who can afford an alternative to a state school, opt for private education. Apart from Islamia School, there are 27 independent Muslim schools in Britain. Most want to gain state funding and see the Islamia School's application as a test case.

Muslim organizations say the rejection of funding to the school is an example of government failure to respect non-Christian faiths.

The Islamia School's attempts to gain state funding have not been helped by political developments in the Brent area. When the school was first established, the local council was controlled by the Labour Party, which supported Yusef Islam's educational initiative. The council now has a Conservative Party majority.

Applications for state-aided status must have the backing of the local authority, and the Brent Council has withheld its support for Islamia. In a letter to Patten earlier this year, George Benham, Brent's education director, said it would cost British pounds400,000 ($600,000) to fund the Islamia School, and the money was not available. Mr. Benham told Patten that there are 2,500 spare places in the area.

The council's claim to be short of funds is challenged, however, by Islam, who charged that 24 hours after the Islamia School's application was rejected, the council approved an application by a neighboring Christian school for state-aided status. The education department has not denied Islam's assertion.

It has since been reported that the Christian school will qualify for state funding to pay for repairs expected to cost up to British pounds3 million ($4.5 million).

``Can there be any explanation other than malicious prejudice against Muslims?'' Islam asks.

His complaint won support from Sir Rhodes Boyson, a Conservative member of parliament and former education minister, who said the rejections were ``totally nonsensical.''

Muslim believers should have the same rights to state-aided schools as Christians and Jews, he said.

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