Risk of extremism in schools must be taken seriously

After extensive trailing yesterday across the BBC and other media, Panorama’s investigation of Islamic schools in the UK, ‘British schools, Islamic rules’, was broadcast last night, writes the Quilliam Foundation's George Readings.

After extensive trailing yesterday across the BBC and other media, Panorama’s investigation of Islamic schools in the UK, ‘British schools, Islamic rules’, was broadcast last night.

The programme’s main headline grabber was its revelation that a network of part-time Islamic schools and clubs in the UK have been using a Saudi Arabian curriculum which teaches children that homosexuals should be killed (although it acknowledged a range of views about how this should occur), asks them to list the “reprehensible qualities” of Jews and, in addition to teaching that thieves should have their hands cut off, describes how this should occur.

The programme also discussed full-time schools where there are grounds for concern – for instance, Jame’ah Uloomul Qur’an school in Leicester, where girls are required to wear niqab.

Panorama points out that the school was established by a mosque which is linked to an Islamic advice service that publishes guidance warning Muslims against music, saying that it is a “direct ploy of the non-Muslims”, and telling Muslim lawyers that they must not help asylum seekers in the UK fleeing death by stoning.

Of course, the cases highlighted by Panorama were exceptional; most Muslim schools are no worse (or better) for cohesion than Catholic or Church of England faith schools.

Panorama also raised the issue of schools organising events with speakers like the Deobandi Riyadh ul Haq and the Wahhabi Haitham al-Haddad. A Times investigation in 2007 found that Riyadh ul Haq had said of Jews:

“They’re all the same. The Jews don’t have to be in Israel to be like this. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in New York, Houston, St Louis, London, Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester. They’re all the same.

They’ve monopolised everything: the Holocaust, God, money, interest, usury, the world economy, the media, political institutions… they monopolised tyranny and oppression as well. And injustice”

Haitham al-Haddad, who was guest speaker at a fundraiser for Apex Primary School, is a supporter of Hamas and Panorama have a recording of him saying:

“The conflict between Islam and the enemies of al-Islam is an ongoing conflict and we should pay the price of this victory from our blood and Muslims are ready to do so.”

Ultimately, last night’s Panorama suggests that there are grounds for concern about some Islamic schools in the UK, but it fails to get inside them to show what was actually happening in classes. To do so would have been difficult, not least because parents who have chosen to send their children to a school run by extremists are unlikely to want to participate in an exposé of that school, but it means that the extent of the problem in British schools remains unclear.

As extremists appear to have gained some influence over schools – and think-tanks and television crews have, as yet, been unable to effectively assess the extent of the problem – something else is needed to identify where there are problems and how large these are.

The most logical way to do so would be through the regular inspections which all schools are required to undergo. As Policy Exchange advises in a report published to coincide with the Panorama programme, school inspections need to look not only at the quality of teaching within a school, but what values the schools are teaching as well. As such, the rigour of inspections and the neutrality of inspectors are of crucial importance.

Yet part-time schools are not inspected, and many Muslim schools have opted out of the mainstream Ofsted inspections and are now being inspected by the ‘Bridge Schools Inspectorate’, established by the Association of Muslim Schools and the Christian Schools Trust, a body about which Panorama also raises concerns.

Moreover, the coalition government’s flagship free schools policy will create a new way for extremists to try to gain influence over schools. To guard against this happening, Policy Exchange advocates the creation of a ‘due diligence’ unit within the Department for Education to check that, before the first free schools are allowed to open in September 2011, those behind them are not linked to extremist organisations. Indeed, local press in Birmingham quotes Michael Gove as saying that this due diligence unit has already been set up.

As Panorama and Policy Exchange remind us, the risk of extremists gaining influence within schools is one that should be taken seriously. Making inspections more rigorous and establishing a ‘due diligence units’ will go some of the way towards identifying how large this risk is and countering it, but only time will tell whether these measures are enough.

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