Once again, the question of state funding for denominational schools has hit the headlines. The immediate reason this time is the government's announcement last week that it would not grant voluntary-aided status to a private Muslim school in Brent, north London.
Baroness Blatch, the Minister of State for Education, said that the Islamia primary school, founded ten years ago by Yusuf Islam, formerly the pop singer Cat Stevens, did not qualify for state funding because there were already more than enough state primary school places in Brent. Muslims responded by denouncing the government for pursuing a blatantly discriminatory policy. If state funding is all right for 2,100 Roman Catholic, 2,000 Anglican, 21 Jewish and four Methodist schools, they argue, why shouldn't Muslim schools get it too?
As just about every quality newspaper has remarked in a leader, the Muslims seem to have a strong case. The government's excuse for refusing state funding is feeble even by its own execrable standards: the Islamia school is heavily over-subscribed, with a 1,000-name waiting list even though it charges more than £1,000 a year fees, and a majority of its 180 pupils live outside Brent. It is, by all accounts, including that of John Patten, the Education Secretary, who visited it earlier in the year, professionally run and regularly inspected, following the National Curriculum to the letter.
More important than the specific case of the Islamia school, the way that Muslim schools are treated differently from those of other denominations is patently unfair. According to the most reliable estimates, there are in the United Kingdom today 1.8 million adult members of the established Anglican church, 1.9 million Roman Catholics, 1.2 million Presbyterians, 400,000 Methodists and 900,000 members of other Protestant denominations. Between 1975 and 1990, total membership of Christian churches declined by 15 per cent. The only Christian churches that have grown are evangelical and charismatic ones.
During the same period, Islam became a firmly rooted part of British life, as did other religions rare here until the wave of immigration from the Indian sub-continent in the 1960s and 1970s. There are now more than one million adult Muslims in the United Kingdom, 300,000 Hindus and 300,000 Sikhs. It is not inconceivable that, within 25 years, Muslims will outnumber Anglicans in the UK.
But if there is a clear case for treating Muslim schools no differently from Anglican, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Methodist schools, that does not necessarily mean that state funding should be extended. It would be just as fair to withdraw it from existing denominational schools and to make state education wholly secular – and there are sound arguments for doing just that.
The most important is based on the simple liberal principle that religious beliefs are essentially private, personal matters. The state should ensure that people are not persecuted for their religious beliefs (or indeed for the lack of them) and should intervene to stop religious practices that break the law. But that should be the end of its involvement. Just as it should do nothing to suppress religious belief, it should do nothing to encourage it. Yet, by funding denominational schools, that is precisely what the state is doing.
It is doing it, moreover, in a way that flies in the face of the assumption, universally applied to other spheres of life, that children do not have the experience to make responsible decisions, even about personal matters. Sex is barred until the age of 16, voting until 18 – but denominational schools operate on the basis that there is nothing wrong with a person's choice of religion being heavily influenced, if not determined by, teachers before he or she has reached the age of ten.
Broadening the scope of denominational education would also increase racial segregation in society as a whole, which in turn would exacerbate racial tensions. As the Commission for Racial Equality used to put it (it has subsequently changed its line): "Separate schools are in conflict with the pluralist principles of 'education for all', as not providing pupils with a common education experience, as absolving schools from the need to adapt to a multi-cultural society and as leading to community polarisation and isolation along racial lines."
Unfortunately, such opinions are rarely voiced these days in British politics. Politicians of all parties realise that, even though religious observance in Britain has declined inexorably in the past century, there are votes to be had in religion.
For the Conservatives, with little support among ethnic minority Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, defence of the status quo against calls for the extension of the denominational schools system is a convenient means of playing the race card to white voters, of a piece with being "tough" on "bogus asylum-seekers". For Labour, which once argued for the abolition of denominational schools (against the wishes of members in its north-western and Scottish Catholic heartlands), promising to extend the system appears attractively fair to liberal opinion and goes down very well in key marginal seats in the Midlands and Yorkshire.
Ultimately, however, the problem is not just one of political opportunism. The whole question of state funding for denominational schools arises, in the end, because of the privileges granted Anglicanism as the official religion of the British state. As with so much that is wrong with British life, the only true solution will come when a government dares to give our creaking constitution a radical overhaul.