FOUR Scottish schools have been targeted by Islamic campaigners who are calling for them to be converted into the country’s first dedicated Muslim primaries.
The schools in Glasgow, including one which is currently Roman Catholic, are at the centre of the controversial move by Scotland’s Muslim community to satisfy increasing worries about the negative influence secular education is having on their children.
While ministers and politicians will not want to be seen to oppose the campaign, they will regard it as a major political headache as any public opposition would also put the issue of separate Catholic schooling under the spotlight.
The largest of the four schools - all of which have 90% Muslim pupils at the moment - is the Roman Catholic St Albert’s School in Pollokshields, which has 360 children. The others are Pollokshields Primary, with 350 children, Annette Street Primary in Govanhill, with 200 pupils, and Willowbank Primary in the Woodlands area of Glasgow’s West End.
The campaign comes in the wake of ministers south of the Border funding Islamic schools, and East Renfrewshire Council - which also runs a Jewish primary - saying it would be prepared to consider any request for a Muslim school.
Muslim parents, the Catholic church and MSPs have voiced their support for the campaign, but critics worry the schools will increase segregation and become a "gift for racists".
Osama Said, the Scottish spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain and the organiser of the campaign, said: "As parents, we are becoming increasingly worried about the influence of secular schooling on our children. We are worried the boys may be buying into the gang culture, and feel cut off from their heritage. If other faiths have the right to separate schools funded by the state, then it should not be denied to us."
The campaign has been held back until after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which will end this week. It will involve lobbying Glasgow City Council and local MSPs in an effort to get the support for state-funded Muslim schools. There are an estimated 30,000 Muslims in Scotland’s biggest city.
Farah Shabeer, a mother of four children at Pollokshields Primary, welcomed the plan. She said: "I felt when I went to a church school as a girl that we were different. It was like you had to put your religion on hold while you were at school.
"You threw a sickie for the festival of Eid, so you could be at home. And you knew the teachers were saying, ‘Oh, that’s these Muslims taking a day off for their thing’. It would have been so nice if we could have been Muslims all the time and not hide our religion."
A local Imam, Sabir Rabbani of the Madrasah Zia-ul-Quran Mosque in Kenmure Street in Pollokshields, said: "Muslim schools in England are extremely impressive. They have good academic records and that is what we need in this community. It will also be good for the children to be in an Islamic atmosphere."
However, one of the non-Asian parents with children at Pollokshields Primary warned he may withdraw his daughter if it became a Muslim school.
Father-of-four Andrew Johnson said: "We would have big problems with a school which required a distinctly Muslim ethos, we would not want our children brought up being taught any religion by a school. We prefer for them to make up their own minds.
"My brain tells me that there should be separate schools because they are available to other faiths. But I believe it is better for the children and for society that they should mix and learn from each other."
A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church last night backed the Muslim campaign, and said the Church would have no problem allowing one of their schools to be changed from Catholic to Muslim.
He said: "We are in favour of Muslim schools, we support faith schools across the board. In the case of St Albert’s, we see a school in which for 95% of the children the festival of Eid has more significance than Christmas or Easter. It is de facto not a Catholic school."
But the local priest, Rev John Gannon, refused to comment on the possibility of St Albert’s becoming Muslim, praising its current ethos.
Fred Forrester, the former general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland - Scotland’s largest teaching union - was horrified.
He said: "Can you imagine how racists would exploit this? The BNP would be able to move into the area and tell people, ‘Look over there, they took your school away from you’. It would be explosive, a gift for racists."
Any state-funded Muslim school would have to keep to national guidelines and standards on teaching. It would have to allow pupils of any faith to attend and it would not be allowed to ban non-Muslims from jobs, although it would be allowed to insist that teachers respected the Muslim ethos of the school.
According to Said, a Muslim school would not be at odds with the views of modern science on the origins of life and the universe. It would also feature teaching the Quran, Arabic and daily prayers.
Senior Labour figures are known to be supportive of denominational education, believing their religious ethos gets better results.
In an interview for Holyrood Magazine, First Minister Jack McConnell said on the issue of Muslim schools: "Any additions to the system for other faiths or groups need to be carefully considered. It would be wrong to rule them out."
The Scottish Tories last night supported the families’ campaign. James Douglas-Hamilton, their education spokesman said: "We must encourage more choice and diversity in a system which currently has very little. If there is demand for Muslim schooling we would support it."
A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said the authority would not comment until they had receive a formal application from parents.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
THE first Islamic school in the UK to receive state support was the Islamia School in London, which got ministers’ backing in 1998. Islamia was opened in 1983 by Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, and was visited by Muhammed Ali, right. Since then another three schools in England have been admitted to the state sector.
Campaigners in Scotland seek to allay fears that Muslim schools insist that their teachers would have to be registered by the General Teaching Council, that non-Muslims would still be allowed to attend and teach at them, and that they would be open to inspection.
However, the new campaign comes in the wake of a torrid time for Islamic schooling north of the Border.
Last May, Scotland's first Muslim school, in the south side of Glasgow, was closed after a damning report by inspectors. Iqra Academy, a private Islamic school, was criticised amid allegations of bullying, lack of staff training and the use of corporal punishment. The local Imam who ran the school was also criticised by parents for running it along hard-line religious principles.