Emma Hartley and Julie Henry, Telegraph (UK), May 30
A London school funded by the Saudi Arabian government is facing complaints from parents that it is teaching British children “fundamentalist” Islam while giving girls an inferior education.
The King Fahd Academy in Acton, west London, named after the current Saudi ruler, devotes up to 50 per cent of lessons to religious education and teaches almost all classes in Arabic, with boys and girls following different curricula.
Former teachers and parents have come forward to criticise the academy’s religious teachings for instilling “hostility to the outsider”. They also claim that there is discrimination against female pupils. The school was opened 19 years ago for the offspring of Saudi diplomats in London. Since then, many children of British Muslims have joined the school. In 2002, only 37 per cent of the 738 pupils were of Saudi origin.
Among those who currently attend the academy are the children of Abu Hamza, the cleric from Finsbury Park mosque who was arrested last week after the United States applied for his extradition on terrorism charges.
Originally the British and the Saudi curricula were taught side by side. Five years ago, however, the Saudi Arabian government ordered the school to phase out British lessons and to teach Saudi-style classes.
The school is segregated and younger boys and girls are now taught different courses, to comply with Saudi education policy, which states that a girl’s education should “enable her to be a successful housewife, an exemplary wife and a good mother” or prepare her for work which is “suitable to her disposition as a woman”.
Girls at the academy do barely any physical education and the only type of technology they will learn is “home technology”.
Dr Mai Yamani, a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, had two daughters at the school, but removed them when she became uncomfortable about the education they were receiving. “I moved my eldest daughter at the age of seven. Her new school said that, in their opinion, she had been ‘totally untaught’ to that point. They had to put her in a class with much younger children, which was terrible for her.
“The books they taught the girls from kept going on about idolatry and sin and how to avoid it. It was about the fires of hell, torture in the grave and how to make sure that your ways are not those of the infidel.
“The school is trying to make sure that the Saudis who go there abide by the system of state control in Saudi Arabia. The method is ‘loyalty to the system and hostility to the outsider’.
“Three years ago I interviewed some of the pupils for a book and some of them were talking as if they didn’t live in London at all.”
Dr Yamani, the daughter of the former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Yamani, believes that girls at the school are given an inferior education to that provided to boys and that they are taught to “know their place”.
She added: “They consider that the mind of a girl is less capable of absorbing education.” Another parent who has two teenage girls at the school is unhappy with the direction the academy is taking.
“It used to be a wonderful school that taught the two traditions side by side. Now only one lesson in six is taken in English. The children would not have the standard to even read the paper by the time they reach A-level,” he said.
“It has arrived at a situation where the school seems to be saying: ‘This is the only correct version of Islam’. It’s such a fundamentalist approach.”
No information is given on the academy’s website about the school curriculum. The school said it could not supply details in English about what children were taught.
A senior teacher at the school, who asked not to be named, admitted, however, that girls did not receive the full curriculum. “Girls will not have as much PE and they will be taught home technology, rather than any other type of technology.
“The Saudi-type teaching is more didactic, with a lot of rote learning and factual stuff. There is not much in the way of understanding and applied learning. At 18, pupils will probably be at the equivalent of GCSE level.” He said that it was “very definitely true” that the Saudi education would not prepare pupils for life in Britain.
When asked if the school provided an inferior education to girls, he said: “It provides an inferior education to boys and girls.” Dr Ali Alghamdi, the principal of the King Fahad Academy, defended the phasing out of the British curriculum. He claimed that because the school taught mostly Saudi children, the curriculum was appropriate.
“The school is mainly for the Saudi community and the children of Saudi diplomats working in London,” he said. “We are no different to any foreign school in any foreign city.” The school was visited by inspectors from the Government’s Office for Standards in Education about four years ago, although a legal loophole means that reports for private schools produced before September 2003 are not published.
If inspectors had concerns about the school, they should have been passed to the Department for Education. Officials there said that they were not aware of any issues being raised following the inspection.
A spokesman said: “It is anticipated that King Fahad will next be inspected in 2006. Of course, if we are made aware of concerns about any independent school we would consider bringing forward an inspection.”
In state schools, boys and girls must be taught the national curriculum. This does not apply in the independent sector, although private schools must maintain a “satisfactory standard” in the education provided and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils. Any claim of discrimination would have to be brought under the Sex Discrimination Act.
The Act says that it is unlawful for a school or college to discriminate against a woman in admission and “in the way it affords her access to benefits, facilities and services”. Complaints can be lodged with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which would then investigate.
Dr Nasim Butt, a former teacher at the academy and an Ofsted inspector, said that the school’s curriculum was no longer appropriate for British children. “As a teacher and an inspector of faith schools, I am interested in personal development and producing individuals who reflect deeply, self-evaluate and make a contribution to society.
“A Saudi education is not going to create individuals who make that kind of contribution in a free society.”
Pupils in Saudi Arabia are obliged to spend half of the school timetable studying a rigid interpretation of Islam. A recent review of the curriculum by the Saudi government concluded that almost a fifth of lesson plans contained tracts preaching anti-Western and anti-Semitic views. The Saudi education department is now considering a redraft of the whole curriculum.