In response to a London school abandoning gender segregation against the wish of Muslim parents, Ibrahim Hewitt questions whether this was done as a result of government pressure to “tackle extremism” in schools.
A report in the Independent claimed that a school in the London Borough of Brent is scrapping gender segregation “despite angry parents’ complaints”.
Predictably, the school has a majority of Muslim pupils. The head teacher who has taken this decision, Mohsen Ojja, says that it is “needed to turn the failing school around” and he won’t be stopped by a “quite militant, quite vociferous minority” against the change.
Mr Ojja is on the spot and, presumably, knows his school, so I wouldn’t dare to suggest that he is wrong. There is, though, a nagging concern that the move is part of the bigger “anti-extremism” drive — or could be used as such — about which many people in the Muslim community are worried.
Gender segregation in schools
Over the past few years, state schools around the country have been reintroducing gender segregation for certain lessons, usually science, so that girls in particular can be more engaged with the subject. PE lessons in secondary schools are always single-sex, as are other lessons in some schools.
There is a lot to say in favour of single-sex education per se, which perhaps explains why the major public schools are almost always gender specific, at least up to GCSE level. The prime minister, for example, was educated at Eton College; it’s a boys’ school from years 7 to 11.
What worries me is that parents calling for gender segregation are being labelled as “militant”, as if such a preference is really out of the ordinary, or something outrageous. It’s not.
Of equal concern is the fact that such moves, along with the government’s wider and much-derided Prevent strategy, tend to stigmatise parents who take their religion seriously enough to want it to be reflected in the education of their children.
This applies to Jews, Christian and Muslims as well as some Sikhs and Hindus. The Ultra-Orthodox Jews of Stamford Hill, for example, send all of their children to their own faith schools. It has been claimed recently that Ofsted turns a blind eye to infringements of the regulations in such schools, but that’s a different issue. Suffice to say that all schools should be monitored and have to comply with the legal requirements.
However, as long as laws and regulations regarding the safety and well-being of children are observed and put into practice, and general health and safety guidance is followed, along with equality of access to a “broad and balanced curriculum” (the minimum legal requirement), then the teaching arrangements made within any school should be left to the management.
If the head and his team get it right, then parents will support them by sending their children to the school; if not, then bye-bye children. It’s as simple as that.
Role of religion in schools
Where we seem to heading now, though, is that expressions of conservative religious practice — whether segregation, uniform or prayers in school, for example — are being seen as “extreme” or, in Brent at least, their proponents are put down as “militants”. This is dangerous territory.
The simple fact of the matter is that if people of any faith want to practice it in the way that they believe is correct, then subject to the legal provisos noted above, they should be allowed to get on with it, in schools and elsewhere.
Britain is, after all, a liberal democracy within which virtually anything goes as long as it doesn’t endanger anyone else, especially vulnerable children and adults. If the government clamps down on such expressions, or encourages schools to prevent (no pun intended) them taking place in schools, I fear that there will be parents who feel that they have no option but to withdraw their children, particularly their teenage girls, from the education system altogether.
They will drop off the education radar and that cannot be good for anyone, least of all the girls themselves. This phenomenon has affected Muslim girls in a number of cities around the country over the years, although it has been slowed, as far as I know from anecdotal evidence, by the growth of Muslim faith schools.
These are not a panacea, I know, but they do provide an option for parents who might otherwise keep their daughters at home.
The question is, has the government got the courage to put ideology to one side in the interests of maintaining sufficient provision for such families, or will the “anti-extremism” moves take the extreme step of clamping down on all “militant” parents in all schools, regardless of their ethos?
In Britain we all pay taxes and have a right to have a say in how those taxes are utilised for education, health and other issues. We also have a legal right to educate our children according to parental wishes; this has to be limited, I know, for some very practical reasons, but how far is the government prepared to go to restrict that right?
And has it considered the effect that any limits it imposes or condones might have on the number of young people dropping out of education? This is a serious question, which requires serious consideration. Over to you, Secretary of State.
Ibrahim Hewitt is the Senior Editor of Middle East Monitor (MEMO) and the Chairman of UK-based charity Interpal.