The UK's education secretary has threatened to close six Muslim schools in London, after the country's school inspection body, Ofsted, claimed that their students are at risk of radicalization.
Ofsted inspected seven schools in total in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets over a period of 10 days in October. Six were private Muslim faith schools — four of which were secondary schools and two at the elementary level. Three of the schools have their premises within a mosque. The seventh school was a state-funded Church of England elementary school, which was also determined inadequate.
In a letter regarding the report, the UK's Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote that the evidence found during the investigations raised concerns that the students at these schools might be "vulnerable to extremist influences and radicalization."
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said that if changes are not made within weeks then they reserve the right to force closures of the schools involved.
"The findings are very concerning. While there is no suggestion of a co-ordinated plot, it is clear that these schools are failing children, and this is unacceptable. All schools must prepare children for life in modern Britain," she said.
At Mazahirul Uloom school — which has a student body of 102 — the inspectors reported several pupils told them it would be wrong to learn about other religions. According to the report, "when discussing Sharia and English law, they were unable to tell inspectors which laws they should follow, and which were more important."
The inspectors also said students displayed a very narrow view of the roles of women in society, with some of the pupils saying that "women stay at home and clean and look after the children. They cook and pray and wait for us to come back in from school and help with homework."
Ofsted also reported that Mazahirul Uloom was failing to carry out background checks on staff members who had previously lived or worked abroad.
Mazahirul Uloom's website says that students study "within the context of an Islamic environment," and they "teach the National Curriculum and Islamic Sciences through a carefully synthesized mixture of both traditional and modern educational approaches."
It goes on to say, "while our academic results have seen continuous improvement, ultimately, our goal is to not only prepare our students for professional adult life, but also for the hereafter, Insha'Allah."
In response to the report, the school said that the inspectors had made "sweeping generalizations" on the basis of students' responses to vague questions.They added that students have other influences beyond what they learn in class, and their responses to general questions are not necessarily a reflection on the curriculum.
Another of the schools, Jamiatul Ummah, describes itself by saying, "In the current climate in which Islam is frequently viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility, we need to state emphatically that we are NOT an organization which brainwashes children into following a path of intolerance and separatism, and declines to teach them anything that might be useful, or even accurate, about the society we live in."
In a statement following the release of the reports, Jamiatul Ummah said they were profoundly disappointed by the inspectors' findings, but would work hard to address any concerns. They added that they felt Ofsted was giving disproportionate emphasis to certain issues which do not address the real characteristics of the school.
"We educated our students to go on to higher and further educational institutions in the UK. Our A level students have gone on to top UK universities like Oxford, Imperial, Kings and other Russell Group universities. Our students are committed to upholding the law and values they have espoused as British citizens," the school said in the statement.
VICE News approached all six independent schools for a reaction to the report. In three cases calls went unanswered, and in another three representatives said that there was no one available to make a comment.
A Church of England state school was also criticized for failing to safeguard students, particularly in relation to raising awareness about the risks associated with extremism.
The Sir John Cass Church of England Secondary School had its status downgraded from "outstanding" to "inadequate" because of what Ofsted indicated were their failures in safeguarding pupils against extremism.
Their report pointed to social media postings and webpages being run by students that bear the school's name. One posting said that any sixth form student who attended a "leavers' party" and listened to music or engaged in "free-mixing" would face "severe consequences later."
Tower Hamlets, the council where the schools are based, released a statement saying that they have repeatedly offered assistance to independent schools locally, "but we cannot compel them to accept this help."
"We robustly act to the limit of our powers. We are of course happy to discuss with Ofsted and the Department for Education what role we can play within existing legislation to improve the safeguarding practices at these schools," the council wrote.
Mustafa Field is the director of Faith Forums for London, a group that brings together 29 religious leaders to meet regularly and discuss the issues facing London and its various faith groups. Field told VICE News that the real problem here is a lack of diversity in all schools, and that the responsibility to promote that falls on the government and local councils, as well as on schools. Most importantly, he said, a change in the curriculum is necessary.
"What we're doing isn't working, and we need to diversity religious education in all schools to ensure that people do have a good understanding," he said.
Field added that there also has to be an understanding that schools and teaching staff have limited capacity. He said that while there is "a lot of extremism out there," it is very difficult for schools to monitor influences coming through the internet or through social media, and that there are many other ways that children can be influenced.
Instead of focusing just on schools, Field said, "What we need to do is build a stronger society where people can articulate the challenges they have."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd
Image via Flickr/Eric James Sarmiento