Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills since October 2002, answers questions on the educational status of young British Muslims.
The latest census data shows that the second largest faith community in Britain is Islam and a large proportion of the Muslim community is of school age. How has this data affected educational policy and more importantly what practical steps will be taken in schools to reflect this?
Although the Department doesn't presently request or collate data on the religion or faith of pupils in maintained schools in England, we are aware from national census data that the majority of pupils from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background are Muslim. Many schools collect data on religious faith as part of a wider commitment to recognise and value the heritage and background of every child. We encourage schools to monitor this data and, where it reveals patterns, for example of under-achievement or disproportionate exclusion, take practical steps to address the issues raised.
Even where this data is not collected, it's important for schools to ensure that the religious make up is reflected in the life of the school. Schools can also develop pupils' understanding of equality issues by ensuring that pupils understand and respect diversity in the school and the wider community.
The programme of study for Citizenship education - now a statutory part of the curriculum for secondary schools - includes developing pupils' knowledge and understanding about the diversity of religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom and the need for mutual respect and understanding, as well as the legal and human rights and responsibilities underpinning society. This provides the framework for young people to develop important skills of responsible action, enquiry and communication as they explore a wide range of equality issues.
Why do you think that Muslims, especially those from Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, are consistently under achieving?
The underlying causes of under-achievement are complex. But it is important for us to look seriously at the impact of policies, practice and procedures within schools so that we can support them to more effectively meet the needs of all pupils.
I recognise that there is concern amongst some communities, especially Pakistani and Bangladeshi, that children are underachieving. But I'm not sure it's right to say that Muslim, Pakistani or Bangladeshi children are consistently underachieving. There are Muslim pupils performing at the highest levels in our schools and the performance of both Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils has been rising steadily since 1998.
Having said that, I recognise that the gap between where we are and where we want to be is large and inequalities continue to persist in the system. My Department needs to do more to address issues of underachievement - the Aiming High strategy, launched last month, sets out an ambitious programme of work that will, over time, close the achievement gap between Muslim pupils and the highest performing pupils. You can access the Aiming High strategy and the consultation document by clicking on to http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/ethnicminorities
Even today there are many children who are starting school proficient in their mother tongue but without the ability to speak English. Do you think this has any long term effects on the ability of a child to learn and achieve and do you think parents should speak to their children in English as per the advice of the Home Secretary?
The ability to speak English is crucial to enabling children to get the most out of school. Children who start school without fluency in English tend to progress more slowly in the initial stages of their education. However their progress improves as their language skills develop and, by the time they reach secondary school, they are doing better than their peers.
Young children have an amazing capacity to pick up languages and I think it is important that children are exposed to all the languages that are spoken in the home. The earlier children are exposed to English, the more rapidly they will acquire the language and reduce the chances that lack of English fluency will inhibit their development.
I believe parents have a vital role in supporting their children's learning and development and this could include appropriate support for English language acquisition prior to entering school. However, not all parents or families will be equipped to teach English effectively to their children. This is one of the reasons why we encourage schools to have positive relationships with parents and the wider community served by the school. Where these community links are most vibrant, schools can work with parents and the community to determine how best parents can support their children, including issues such as learning English. Schools can also demonstrate to parents that while English language fluency is a key priority, home languages and the culture and heritage of all pupils are also recognised and valued in the school.
What are your thoughts on single faith schools and do you think they aid or hinder the development of students?
Faith schools are often popular with parents and play a valuable role in local communities. They tend to have a distinct ethos and mission, characteristics we believe to be at the heart of school improvement.
For many years we have acknowledged parents' wishes to educate their children in mainstream Christian schools and it is only right, given our multi-cultural society, that parents of other faiths have similar opportunities for educating their children in accordance with their own beliefs.
Faith schools can also make an important contribution to community cohesion by promoting inclusion and developing partnerships with schools of other faiths, and with non-faith schools. I want to see faith schools working with other local schools to bring children of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds together, and to promote understanding between different sections of our society so that our children can take their place in a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society.
I really believe it is important to promote ethnic, religious and cultural tolerance and respect with different groups of people living and working together. That is why, from June 2003, promoters of new schools whether these are faith schools or not - will be required to show how the proposals will help to promote community cohesion.