We need a sensible debate on the future of faith schools

Published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on 27 June 2014

Many people were alarmed by the recent Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. A “culture of fear and intimidation” had been created in several schools by hardline Islamists, and there was evidence of an “organised campaign to target certain schools”, according to Ofsted.

We should not make excuses for what happened in Birmingham and we should not brush it under the carpet. It is good that these unauthorised practises have been uncovered and it is right that steps are taken to address the issue.

The schools in question were not faith schools: they were secular schools being run by the local Council and by academy trusts. If they had been faith schools however, then a lot of what was found to be unacceptable would still be going on.

Public appetite for faith schools has diminished significantly. A survey by Opinium found that 58% of people believe faith schools should be abolished and 70% think they should not be state funded.

The central argument against faith schools is that young impressionable children are often taught to accept untruths as truths and to assimilate information through the prism of religion.

Newsnight recently featured a report on 30 private Christian faith schools, where children are taught that evolution isn’t true, and that the earth is only a few thousand years old. This of course contradicts the overwhelming evidence we have which proves that evolution is real and the earth is 4.54 billion years old.

Although the government has banned creationism from being taught in our 7,000 state-funded faith schools, private faith schools continue to operate as a law unto themselves.

Insofar as state funding for faith schools is concerned, to me it seems irrational and counter-intuitive. We don’t allow Council tenants to be housed on the basis of faith or NHS hospitals to have different wards for different religions.

Yet with state-funded faith schools we permit a religious apartheid in our education system, where the next generation of citizens are segregated along doctrinal lines, in accordance with their parent’s beliefs.

The late Christopher Hitchens claimed that faith schools were a “cultural suicide”. He argued that increasing them would turn Britain into somewhere like Lebanon, where people live in sectarian communities, and religious tensions are always simmering away ready to boil over.

Living in a multicultural and multi-faith society is a good thing but we must actively promote integration. We should have secular public services which treat all people equally irrespective of belief.

And all children should receive a well-rounded evidence-based education, with a healthy and inclusive understanding of other faiths and cultures, so as to prepare them for life in modern Britain and the wider world.

Clarissa Dickson Wrong

Letter published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on 28 November 2012

I was dismayed to read this letter from T Green in the Mercury on 22 November; one of several recent letters and online comments from people jumping on the Clarissa Dickson Wright bandwagon. Thankfully I’ve also seen more sensible letters from Ann Collins and Eddie Sentance amongst others, reflecting the true face of Leicester people, and the common decency and human compassion that most of us share.

Firstly in response to T Green: I hate to break it to you, but you appear to be suffering from a bout of xenophobia. Take 2 visits with friends to an Indian restaurant and perhaps a place of worship, followed by a long hard look in the mirror. If symptoms persist contact your nearest library and try reading a few good books. Before long you will discover that humans of different ethnicity are biologically identical, and that different cultures – like different languages – are not something to be afraid of, but something to be embraced; i.e. you have to make a bit of an effort in order to understand something that’s a tad different to what you’re used to. Good luck with your recovery!

As for poor Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the things she said in her widely reported remarks was that she once got lost in a part of Leicester and none of the Muslim men would talk to her. Well to be honest I’m not Muslim myself, but if fox-hunting enthusiast Clarissa Dickson Wright came barrelling towards me on a Leicester side street, I’d probably ignore her too. On a serious note I did find her comments about Leicester to be both idiotic and exaggerated. But it was one particular phrase that really caught my attention, where she casually questioned whether or not multiculturalism actually works.

Now of course I don’t have enough column inches here to run through all the reasoned arguments as to why multiculturalism does work, has worked and will continue to work in the future. (Or for that matter to try and give Clarissa Dickson Wright and all her fans a much needed education). But for the sake of brevity I will simply say this: Saint George was an Arab, the Royal family is German, our national dish is Indian and our most gifted Olympians are of African descent. Questioning multiculturalism is akin to questioning evolution: both are part and parcel of the human story. The sooner we accept that and move on to creating for ourselves a life of purpose and fulfilment in this increasingly globalised society, the better off we’ll be.

Speech to Council: motion to recognise the contribution of Ugandan Asians

Click here to watch my speech on the Leicester City Council webcast video archive.

Speech delivered at a Leicester City Council meeting on 13 September 2012

As the son and grandson of Ugandan Asian immigrants who came to this city with virtually nothing, it gives me great pride to bring this motion before Council tonight.

In August 1972 the entire Asian population of Uganda was expelled by the dictator Idi Amin. They were given 90 days to leave the country or face being put into concentration camps. Some 80,000 men, women and children were stripped of all their possessions and forced to leave the only home they had ever known.

Around a third of the Ugandan Asian population held British passports. The Tory Government at the time initially tried to avoid letting them come here, but after weeks of wrangling the Government relented, and a huge resettlement effort began. In the end more than 25,000 Ugandan Asians came to the UK and around 10,000 moved to Leicester.

Here in Britain 1972 was a difficult year. With an oil crisis, a three-day week and crippling strikes; the economy was stagnating and times were tough for almost everyone. In addition there were widespread anti-immigration protests throughout Britain, spurred on by the likes of Enoch Powell and the National Front.

The people of Leicester and the Council at the time were reluctant to see a huge influx of new arrivals. But 40 years on Leicester is a very different place; a much better place. By living together, working together and going to school together, communities in Leicester have become more integrated and multiculturalism is part of everyday life.

When the Ugandan Asians came to Leicester they settled mainly in Highfields and Belgrave where housing was cheap. Despite an ailing economy there were plenty of manual jobs and Ugandan Asians ended up working in factories and businesses such as Imperial Typewriters, Thorn Lighting, Leicester Garments, Wilkinson’s and the British United Shoe Machinery Company to name a few.

It was in the factories and on the shop floors that barriers began to break down between the native British population and the newcomers from Uganda. If discrimination did occur, Ugandan Asians found solidarity with those in the trade union movement; a strong and vital link that remains just as important today as it was back then.

And on the subject of discrimination let me say categorically that we in the Labour Party have always and will always stand for core socialist values of equality and fairness. And that is why we condemn today those, particularly on the far right, who seek to discourage people who are fleeing persecution, from coming here. Yesterday’s National Front are today’s BNP and EDL, and we must never be complacent about the threat they pose or the damage they do, even from a brief visit to our city.

In theory the Ugandan Asians who came here fleeing persecution were refugees, but in practise they lived and behaved like economic migrants; not seeking hand outs but working hard, not taking from society but contributing to it. And – as the Prime Minister said in the Commons yesterday – the contribution that Ugandan Asians have made to the United Kingdom has been ‘extraordinary’.

Those who came to Leicester were strong-willed, hardworking and entrepreneurial. They brought with them an excellent work ethic, core family values, a respect for others and an appreciation of the need to obtain a good education – values that all of us can identify with.

Some of those who were expelled ran successful businesses in Uganda. Here in Britain many had to start again from scratch – which they did – building multi-million pound businesses, and working to help their children become the doctors, lawyers and accountants of tomorrow.

40 years ago the people of Leicester accepted – albeit reluctantly – an unprecedented amount of change. Today our city is not only at peace with its diversity but proud of it. Asian culture imported from East Africa has influenced everything from our food to our fashion, from our festivals to our friendships.

My Lord Mayor, it is right and proper that we acknowledge the contribution that all communities have made and that we thank all the people of Leicester for making our city what it is.

But tonight we pause to reflect on the 40th anniversary of the arrival of Ugandan Asians fleeing persecution and formally recognise the contribution that they have made to the fabric of our city.

I hope that the inter-cultural harmony and social cohesion that we enjoy here in Leicester continues to go from strength-to-strength, and I pay tribute to the values and achievements of the Ugandan Asian community in Britain, and the awesome impact they have had on this great city of ours.

Thank you.