UK Muslim school divides mill town

Proposal to build a massive Muslim girls' boarding school divides Lancashire town.

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BRIERFIELD // On the banks of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the old cotton mill stands as a gigantic ghost-like relic of England's industrial past. It seems unthinkable that this immense sprawl, a key source of employment for a century and a half, should have been idle for three years.

But an ambitious project to give the cluster of buildings a new lease of life, converting them into a boarding school for up to 5,000 Muslim girls, has bitterly divided the local community. The eager support of parents of prospective pupils is rivalled by a deep hostility that has been shown in responses ranging from anxious questions in parliament to extreme right-wing allegations of plots to "Islamify" Britain.

A short walk from the mill, formerly run by the BSN group and producing woven cloth for medical products, houses have been knocked together to create a mosque. A few streets away, a large and elegant new mosque is close to completion. At first glance, the small town of Brierfield, Lancashire, reportedly one of the inspirations for of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, presents a vibrant mix of working class England and a large community of immigrant families with roots in the Indian subcontinent.

But the neighbouring town of Burnley is also known for racial tensions and even moderate critics of the school fear the social impact of such an enormous educational institution for Muslims - and potentially the biggest school in Britain by far - in a town with a population of only 8,000. The controversy also throws into renewed focus recent concerns about single-faith schools. The main voice of British Jews, the Board of Deputies, is conducting urgent consultations after a Supreme Court ruling last month that the leading Jewish school, JFS, had operated an illegal admissions policy for 30 years.

The case arose after the school rejected a boy whose mother's conversion was not recognised by the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Islamic Help, a charity based in England's second city, Birmingham, is behind plans to turn the disused mill into a boarding school, attracting pupils from the UK and possibly abroad. It says the three-hectare complex could also house a sports centre, library and research facilities along with business units to encourage investment and employment.

Most of the initial purchase price of about £1 million (Dh5.8m) - to be handed over on Monday - has been raised but the charity is appealing to Muslims around the world to contribute towards the development of the site. Mohammed Masood Alam Khan, Islamic Help's chairman, said from his native Pakistan, where he has been making a New Year visit, that the first step, provided planning permission is obtained, would be to transfer, as day pupils, 58 girls currently attending a Muslim school in limited premises in Nelson, just over three kilometres away.

The school would then be developed gradually over a period of five years, seeking co-operation and joint initiatives with all parts of the community in the Pendle district. But Gordon Prentice, Pendle's Labour member of the British parliament, says the project would jeopardise community relations and harm existing schools in an area that has recently won a share of a massive state rebuilding programme.

"The last thing we need is single-sex, single-faith schools for girls," he has been quoted as saying. "It pulls against community cohesion. It makes me weep to think so much time, energy and effort has gone into the community to get people to mix together." When Mr Prentice raised his concerns in parliament, the education minister Diana Johnson told him: "The figure of 5,000 for the number of pupils at a boarding school would - be unprecedented, and we would obviously have to give very careful consideration to a proposal for a school of that size."

The Anglican bishop of Burnley, the Dr John Goddard, has also expressed caution, pointing out that both the Church of England and Roman Catholic churches had abandoned proposals for new faith schools in an effort to promote better community relations. The anti-immigration British National Party accuses Muslims of imposing an Islamic identity on Britain. Brian Parker, one of two BNP members of Pendle council, claimed not to be anti-Islam but added: "This is England, not Pakistan, yet large areas of our country are looking more like Pakistan. A Muslim girls' school of this size would be part of the Islamification of England. I would be concerned whatever the size but this proposal is clearly far too big, out of all proportion for a small English town."

But Nadim Akram, a governor of Gausia high school in Nelson, from which the proposed new school would take its first intake of 58 day girls, rejected Mr Parker's portrayal of Muslim intentions. "There is no plan to have girls rocking backwards and forwards on stools reciting the Quran all day," he said. On the contrary, said Mr Akram, 35, a British-born business studies lecturer, the aim was to build on the achievements of the Gausia school, which had received positive reports from government inspectors.

"We have committed and full qualified teachers, follow the national curriculum and try to prove the teaching of a mainstream school with an Islamic ethos." However, Mr Akram believes talk of 5,000 pupils is exaggerated. He would prefer the school to grow slowly, with no more than 250 girls in the early stages. Islamic Help declares itself thrilled by the challenge ahead. "There is genuine need and our intentions are good," said Zaheer Khan, said the charity's fund-raising manager, stressing the importance of reversing a trend for Muslim children to perform less successfully at school.

"As Muslims, we have a duty to ensure better results to make our people better equipped, better educated and better able to find employment, in turn making them better Muslims and better UK citizens."