After years of campaigning, a group of Muslim mothers received approval this week to open an Islamic primary school, the only one in Norway. Critics want the approvals withdrawn, arguing it would damage children’s Norwegian integration and the model has been proven not to work.
The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training (Utdanningsdirektorate) approved an application by Mothers for a Muslim Primary School (Mødre for muslimsk grunnskole) to start up a school with up to 200 students this autumn. The application said the school “will give education in Islamic spirituality and stimulate versatile formation, on an Islamic basis, with a view to good integration in the larger Norwegian society.”
Norway’s first Islamic primary school, Urtehagen skole in eastern Oslo, closed down in 2004 after operating for only three years. Newspaper Aftenposten reported the school was heavily criticized by local politicians for serious deficiencies in its accounts, and its principal admitted to chaos and conflict within the school.
Could hinder integration
“I will make a heartfelt plea to the Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen to look at this case again and stop the approval,” said the Progress Party’s (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) integration spokesman, Mazyar Keshvari. “This is a big backwards step for our city. A separate Muslim school is one of the surest ways to go to get increased segregation in a city which already struggles with too little integration in the first place.”
Isaksen said the directorate’s decision is in line with the regulations, and he has no plans to revoke the approvals. He said it’s inappropriate to treat applications between religious private schools differently. “I see that there is a legitimate discussion over how separate schools for Muslims and Christians impact on integration in Norway,” said Isaksen. “But when all Parliamentary parties are agreed that we should have a law where religious schools get state funding, it’s a little strange to deny Muslim schools approval.”
He said such a move would be discriminatory, and go against international human rights obligations.
Fears history will repeat
Many Oslo city council politicians oppose the plans, saying the new school is backed by the same people behind the failed primary school. Aftenposten reported two out of the three board members from the former school are involved. The mothers association headquarters are in Grønland, in the same building as the Urtehagen private secondary school.
The Oslo School Commissioner, Anniken Hauglie of the Conservative Party (Høyre), said as a rule the municipality was open to new private schools. But she said the main concern was that they provided serious, secure education, and the last Muslim primary school had failed to do so. “That is not an okay situation, neither for us nor the students,” she said.
Hauglie is not convinced history won’t repeat. “As far as we can tell, we perceive this is the same application as the last, but with changes in the board,” she said. “We are unsure if that is good enough, but assume that the directorate has handled the application properly and is sure that the same won’t happen again.”
The leader of the Oslo Progress Party, Camilla Wilhelmsen, doubted minority children could learn good enough Norwegian language skills under a Muslim teacher. “These children need to be in an environment with other Norwegian children,” she told Aftenposten. The community is already to a segregated to a degree, and this will not make it any better.”
The Labour Party’s (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) Andreas Halse is the deputy in Oslo’s culture and education committee. He said the FrP‘s statements were “chillingly inconsistent,” because the party has no problem with Christian private schools. “We can obviously not sort people’s rights according to what type of god they choose to believe in,” he argued.
There are 72 private Christian schools in Norway, but many accept students of all faiths.