The school Cat Stevens built: how Conservative politicians opposed funding for Muslim schools in England

When Yusuf Islam – the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens – had his first child, he wrote her a song. Her name was Hasanah and the song was a kind of ABC of the Muslim faith:

A is for Allah, nothing but Allah … Ka is for kalima, a word we’re taught to teach us what is good and what is not.

It became a hit across the Muslim world. But, as the artist explained in a 2015 interview, he needed to go further than that.

I suddenly thought ‘Hang on, what school am I going to send her to?’ … I had a job to teach my child not only to be academically successful, but how to live.

Hasanah was born in 1980, by which point England had a substantial Muslim population. Stevens, who had converted to Islam in 1977 and adopted his new name in 1978, was an increasingly prominent figure in London’s Muslim community. Along with his wife, Fauzia Mubarak Ali, and a group of friends, in 1983 he set up a small primary school in a house in Brondesbury Park, in the north-west of the city. It was to be run by the Islamic Circle Organisation. And according to the minutes of a June 1985 meeting between Yusuf Islam and Brent council’s education committee, the admissions policy was that “parents of a child should be dedicated to Islam and Islamic education”.

The Islamia primary school was not the only Muslim private school in England. Nor was it the only Muslim school considering an application for state funding in the 1980s. There were other schools in Batley, Bradford, and in the London borough of Newham.

For my PhD research, I have extensively consulted files from the Department of Education and Science (DES) in England, as the Department for Education was known between 1964 and 1992. The documents I have studied are held in the National Archives and in local government files in archives around England.

What set Islamia apart was the fact that it was founded by non-immigrant converts who had the knowledge and the clout to effectively navigate the British education system. Despite this, and even before the school’s application was submitted, my research shows that the UK government decided that Muslim schools should not receive state funding – even though they were arguably legally entitled to it.

I found that in 1988 the DES engineered a new criterion by which to judge whether schools should receive state funding. The application was subsequently turned down without the DES having to engage on deeper questions about the position of Muslims in British society.

It is hard not to interpret this as Islamophobic discrimination by the state. This interpretation is bolstered by research. In a 1995 comparative study of Islamic schools in England and the Netherlands, scholars Claire Dwyer and Astrid Meyer found that Muslims were treated “in isolation from the principle of religious state-funded schooling in other denominations”.

To put this in context, in 1985, there were roughly 8,000 voluntary schools in England (both aided and controlled, a distinction which refers to the relative level of autonomy and the extent of the state funding.) The vast majority of these voluntary schools were associated with a Christian foundation – either Anglican or Catholic – and a small minority were Jewish schools.

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In the wake of the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie. Analysising how the British government responded to British Muslims following the Rushdie affair, Dwyer and Meyer argued that, “Muslims are constructed as outsiders who need to understand the British way of life and their British citizenship is seen as conditional on their recognition of their responsibilities to the British state.”

Researchers have shown that such anti-Muslim sentiment stems from the persistent and – as the fallout from the 2014 Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham demonstrates – harmful idea that Islam is in opposition to western values.

In Birmingham in 2014, an anonymous letter sent to the city council alleged a plot by fundamentalist Muslims, dubbed Operation Trojan Horse, to wrest control of local schools. Numerous subsequent investigations found no evidence to support this claim, but the scandal continues nonetheless to adversely impact Muslim communities in the city.

Islamia primary school’s battle to expand

When the Islamia school first opened in 1983, it was a nursery catering for a mere 13 children. It quickly outgrew the house in which it was located and, according to its own history, was substantially oversubscribed: the demand was there for more places.

To be eligible for funding, as a primary school, it needed to be able to cater for at least 175 pupils. Created by the 1944 Education Act, voluntary-aided status applied to religious schools which met certain criteria and submitted to state monitoring. If successful in their applications, schools received a substantial proportion of capital costs and 100% of running costs.

Amid discussions with the council about becoming voluntary-aided, the school’s first task was to secure suitable premises which would allow it to expand.

Having the local authority on board was crucial in this process, but negotiating with Brent Council in the 1980s was not an easy thing to do. In his book, Stepping on White Corns, former Brent councillor and social historian James Moher explores the history of Brent in the 1980s and 1990s. He quotes local journalist Bill Montgomery, who, in an article in the Willesden and Brent Chronicle dated July 12, 1985, described the council chamber at the time as “a cross between a bullfight and visiting an institution for the criminally insane”.

Archival records show that the council was initially somewhat resistant to supporting Islamia. It took the school to task on subjects of race, Darwininsm in the curriculum, how women are treated in Islam and the qualifications of teaching staff.

Minutes from a meeting on June 3, 1985, between Yusuf Islam and Brent Council’s education committee – held in the Brent local archives – record that Islam stated that the prophet Mohammed said that it was “incumbent on all Muslims, men and women, to seek knowledge” and that the mixing of sexes was allowed before puberty in Islam. Though the records do not specify to what exactly this was in response to, the meeting minutes list Yusuf Islam’s statement under the heading “Equal Opportunities”, suggesting that this point was raised in response to questions about Brent Council’s equal opportunities policies. Yusuf Islam also stated that the school’s curriculum intended to meet DES requirements; that three quarters of teachers at the school already had the requisite qualifications; and that the remaining teachers would follow suit.

After multiple meetings, in April 1986, the council’s education committee finally agreed to lend the school its support in its bid to expand and apply for voluntary-aided status. This indicates that at local authority level, the school was deemed to have met the educational threshold for state funding.

Yusuf Islam was reportedly overjoyed. In a 1987 issue of Inquiry magazine, he was quoted as saying:

We hope that Brent will set the trend for other multireligious, multicultural boroughs in the country. Brent Council is proving that it intends to live up to its declared policy of equal treatment for all.

Difficulties at planning stage

That joy was to be shortlived. The education committee might have been on board, but the main struggle, at council level, was about planning applications. While Islamia first submitted its application in August 1986, it was only considered months later, in January 1987.

In a non-bylined article entitled “Anti Muslim claim as Brent drags its heels” in the Willesden and Brent Chronicle, dated November 21, 1986, the Islamic Circle Organisation was quoted as saying:

This is widely regarded within Brent’s 15,000 strong Muslim community as open discrimination by a Labour-controlled borough pledged to fight racism and blatant proof that segments of the local Labour party seem determined to hinder the school’s progress as much as possible.

The school’s application to expand was initially refused. The council reasoned that having a larger school in a residential area would be noisy and obtrusive for neighbouring properties. It would lead to a loss of outlook and privacy and also bring extra traffic. The fact that the school was a Muslim school did not arise explicitly.

It would perhaps be remiss to not consider this refusal in the light of wider concerns among Brent Council’s ranks about Islamia. The decision to deny the school permission to expand was taken within the wider context of discussions about the school’s application for state funding. This application is mentioned in the minutes of the planning department (officially, the Development Control Sub-Committee).

Those involved with the school were duly sceptical about the development sub-committee’s motives. In the Willesden and Brent Chronicle, Yusuf Islam commented that the 19 Christian and Jewish denominational schools in the area were partly supported by rates and taxes paid by Muslims:

This is grossly unfair. The decision to refuse planning permission for a new extension to Islamia primary school for fear of extra traffic and noise goes against all human logic and is clearly an act of discrimination.

Application for voluntary-aided status

The school persisted in its bid to expand. By mid-1989, the council had finally granted it permission to move to new premises in Queens Park, that could house the requisite 175 pupils. The school’s application for state funding, however, was no less fraught a process.

In outlining the requirements for schools to obtain voluntary-aided status, the 1944 Education Act did not specify religions or denominations. Theoretically all, including Muslims, were eligible. However, the negotiations over state-funded faith schools, which led to the creation of the voluntary-aided category of schools in the 1944 act, were held between the Board of Education and leaders of Christian and Jewish communities in England. Muslim community leaders were not consulted.

In 1988, the Yesodey Hatorah school, a Charedi orthodox Jewish school in Hackney, London, applied to be voluntary-aided. Archival materials show there was concern at the Schools Branch II (the branch of the DES that oversaw the educational needs of children from ethnic minorities) that approving Yesodey Hatorah’s application could trigger applications from other minority religious communities. The same materials mentioned the impending Islamia application, before commenting that “the Secretary of State will wish to consider whether such a signal would be appropriate”.

This sentiment was repeated in meeting minutes dated February 3, 1988. These suggested that approval of the Yesodey Hatorah application would be a “signal that narrowly religious schools can be given a place in the maintained sector”, before mentioning – yet again – Islamia. The minutes then went on to state that “many of the other 17 Muslim independent schools would consider following suit” and that if “Yesodey Hatorah is accepted there would arguably be a case for ‘come one, come all’”. Ministers should be aware of the implications, the note cautioned.

The surplus-places criterion

When the Islamia school applied, it did indeed face opposition. The application was twice denied – first in May 1990 and then on appeal, in 1993. In both instances, the reason given was that there were surplus school places in the borough and, consequently, no case for establishing a new school.

My research shows that this surplus-places criterion was in fact introduced, in the spring of 1988, in response, precisely, to Islamia’s ambitions. Specifically, held in the National Archives is a series of drafts and redrafts of a 1988 DES briefing paper, as well as extensive notes and correspondence about the question of state-funded religious schooling. Together, these documents reveal that the requirement for there to be no surplus school places in an area in order for a new school to be granted funding, was added only after the DES had determined that it was unlikely to be able to refuse Islamia on existing criteria (regarding curriculum, premises and admissions).

On May 20, 1988, a meeting took place between the secretary of state for education, Kenneth Baker, and the home secretary, Douglas Hurd. The minutes of this meeting are held in the Schools Branch II file in the National Archives relating to the Yesodey Hatorah School.

Baker questioned whether it was right for the government to provide assistance for schools which, as he put it, “specifically set out to teach children a different way of life from the country at large”. He mentioned “the strict Muslim teaching with regard to the role of women”. This chimes with other concerns voiced in the media and among politicians at the time.

Government fear of ‘extreme sects’

The DES minutes of the meeting state that the home secretary’s view was that the secretary of state for education should refuse applications for voluntary-aided schools by “extreme sects” where he had grounds for thinking that they would “emphasise separateness”.

As government reports, including the 1985 Swann report, show, the fear at the time was that if so-called separate schools grew in numbers, it would lead to “de facto racial segregation”, to quote a 1990 report entitled Schools of faith: religious schools in a multicultural society (a copy of which is in the British Library).

The first draft of the briefing paper, written by Schools Branch II, outlined Baker’s views. In it, the secretary of state for education argues that were he to approve the Yesodey Hatorah proposal, “I would not find it easy thereafter to resist the demands, particularly of the Moslem [sic] community, for separate schools”.

Baker then says that he shall not be able to depend on finding educational reasons for rejecting such proposals. “The proposers will often be able to make a persuasive case that they will be able to comply with my requirements for aided status and their applications may have considerable educational strengths, as indeed has that of Yesodey Hatorah. The introduction of the national curriculum in the maintained sector will provide a surer base on which to judge whether applicants are putting forward sound proposals, but it would be unwise to consider that they will prove unwilling or unable to do so.”

A subsequent redraft of the paper then states, “there will need to be not only a denominational need for new school places but an overall need for such places in the area of the local education authority (LEA).”

During a discussion in the spring of 1988 regarding the drafting and redrafting of this briefing paper, as recorded in the DES file in the National Archives, the question was raised as to whether schools should demonstrate that they were already teaching a suitable curriculum – in line with the national curriculum – or whether they should show that they would do so once they received the funding. BM Norbury, a member of Schools Branch II, noted that, “to this layman, Islamia primary school in Brent might qualify even under this criterion”.

It is clear then that at both local authority and governmental levels, the Islamia school had been found likely to be able to meet the stated requirements for receiving voluntary-aided status. The DES had effectively decided not that it should approve state funding for Islamia, but that it should seek other justifications for refusing it. The surplus-places criterion provided this.

Tellingly, and by contrast, subsequent archival documents reveal that that same surplus-places criterion was not applied to Yesodey Hatorah or to other Jewish schools, which were approved in the early 1990s on the basis of denominational, but not overall, need.

A DES internal note, dated July 1988 and held in the National Archives, explicitly stated that “the fact that there were surplus places in voluntary and county schools in the area should not be a material factor in determining the Yesodey Hatorah application.” Those surplus places, the note specified, were the Inner London Education Authority’s responsibility: “They would not be filled by the children who attended the Yesodey Hatorah schools.” In other words, the exception made for the children of this Jewish faith-based school was not extended to those from Islamia, a Muslim faith-based school.

Muslims in Britain

By the time the Islamia school had submitted its application for state funding, the Rushdie affair was in full swing. The Times Educational Supplement couched these governmental decisions in what it called “a jittery religious and political climate”, amid the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

A debate about the place of Muslims in Britain was unfolding in the press. In May 1989, a Times newspaper leader column opposed state-funded Muslim schools, asserting that “Islam is not a European faith, and indeed defines itself as a separate and comprehensive civilisation at odds with many key European cultural and political values”.

That same year, the home office minister, Tim Renton, gave a speech (the text of which is held in the National Archives) to the Coventry Conservative Anglo-Asians, in which he argued against state-funded Muslim schools. “In this country,” he said, “our tradition favours the equal treatment of women – affording girls the same educational and career chances as boys.”

Yet, as I have found, the one place that discussion was not playing out was between the state and Muslim schools. The government simply refused to explain why it did not want to fund them.

When John Greenway, Conservative MP for Ryedale, enquired on behalf of a constituent on January 11, 1989, the DES replied (in correspondence found in the National Archives) that he should assert the right of any religious group to apply for voluntary-aided schooling. Each school, the department’s response stated, would be considered according to its individual merits.

The archive shows that others enquiring about Muslim schooling at this point received similar responses. Another internal DES memo (held in the National Archives) refers to this response as “the standard line in explaining how the secretary of state will consider all applications for voluntary-aided status. It does not enter into debate on the case for and against Muslim schools”.

Paddy Ashdown, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, according to the Muslim News in August 1991, put it bluntly:

The present government is indeed operating double standards over the granting of voluntary-aided status to Muslim schools.

This only confirmed what some people in Muslim communities had long suspected. As Islamia co-founder Ibrahim Hewitt said, in an article in the Times Educational Supplement from November 1, 1991, the approval of funding for Jewish schools at this time showed “that there is one law for one group and another law for another group”.

When Islamia school’s application for state funding was refused, for a second time in 1993, Yusuf Islam reportedly expressed frustration at this double standard. He noted that around 4,000 Christian and Jewish schools were recipients of government funding. “We have seen it all before,” he said. “We are now in danger of closing because of the lack of funds.”

And when it emerged, in August 1994, that the Jewish Hasmonean primary school, a nearby establishment in the London Borough of Barnet, had been approved for voluntary-aided status shortly after Islamia’s second refusal, these feelings of rejection among the Muslim communities were only amplified.

The Hasmonean decision had been kept secret for several months. Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, called the government out. In a Times Education Supplement article, dated August 5, 1994, he said:

This is discriminatory. Unfortunately, Muslims are not protected because there is no specific law of religious discrimination, so we cannot take the government to court.

The first state-funded Muslim school

The Islamia school did not see itself as a separate school. From the outset it consistently aimed to work with the state education system. This is evidenced as early as 1986, in the introduction to the school’s proposal for new premises:

We have been trying to obtain voluntary-aided status, wanting –- as we do –- to “opt-in” to the LEA –- because we value the input that the LEA provides.

A similar sentiment was expressed in an oral submission the Islamia School Trust made to Brent Council’s working party on post-primary reorganisation in 1988.

The trust wished to be involved in the education system of the authority. It wished to dispel the feeling of the school being a ghetto institution outside the norms. In addition, the school wished to be able to benefit from the advisory and support services which the authority was able to offer.

And in 1994, even as he accused the government of discrimination and fear of Islam, principle Azam Baig reiterated the school’s aim: “We don’t want to be a Saudi school or a Libyan school or a Pakistani school,” he told the Washington Post. “No, we want to be a British school.”

When asked, in a 2015 interview, how he came to set up the Islamia school in the first place, Yusuf Islam commented that as a proactive person, he didn’t rely on others to do what he needed to do. “We didn’t know how successful it would be,” he said, “the intention was to simply provide for my child.”

His dedication to seeing it through was complete. He was there every morning, helping out with PE and admin. As the headmaster put it once in the school’s early years, “Yusuf is totally devoted and this is his mission”. The Washington Post feature of 1994 noted that, despite tuition fees and private donations, he personally remained the school’s primary benefactor.

That dedication paid off. Finally, in 1998, the Islamia school was eventually granted state funding.

Along with the Al Furqan School in Birmingham, Islamia was the first Muslim school in the UK to achieve this. It had taken over a decade of, as Yusuf Islam’s website puts it, “ceaseless campaigning”.

Reporting on the decision, the Times Education Supplement commented that, “for the Muslims, the decision marks a milestone. One of the main religions in Britain, it is the only one to have been consistently rejected for public funding for its schools”. A further comment piece in the paper argued that Muslim schools had felt largely ignored by the educational establishment and had seemed somewhat isolated and defensive.

It is a sentiment for which, as I have shown, there were undeniable grounds. It is also a sentiment borne out by the treatment of Muslims in the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham, most recently aired in the eponymous New York Times and Serial investigative collaboration, The Trojan Horse Affair podcast. That scandal has cast a shadow so long as to, in the words of extremism scholar Chris Allen, have the potential to stigmatise an entire generation of Muslims.

In 2010, NBC journalist Jennifer Carlile noted that the Islamia primary school now counted 3,500 children on its waiting list and Prince Charles and Muhammed Ali among its friends. “It sets the standards,” Carlile wrote,“ for budding non-Christian state-funded schools.”

If that reads like a victory of sorts, there is no question that it was hard-earned. The Islamophobic suspicion at governmental level that long plagued Islamia – despite its evident success as an educational institution – persisted well into the 21st century.

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Helen Carr does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.