By James Kirkup
13 Feb 2015
Do you worry about Britain’s growing Muslim population? You’re not alone.
According to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, in 2003, 48 per cent of Britons worried that an increase in the Muslim population would weaken Britain’s national identity. By 2013, that had risen to 62 per cent.
A report from the Muslim Council of Britain this week may sharpen those concerns. Based on Census data, it set out how immigration and a high birth-rate have combined to swell Britain’s population to 2.7 million, around a third of them aged under 15.
Almost every political conversation about British Muslims touches on “integration,” the extent to which they and their socially conservative values fit into an increasingly liberal society. Many people fret about Muslims failing to integrate, leading separate lives in their own insular communities.
So are British Muslims becoming more concentrated in particular areas, or are they spreading out and mingling with the rest of the population? Confusingly, the answer is: both.
The rise in the Muslim population, especially because of a high birth rate, means that Muslim “clusters” are getting bigger. There are eight English council areas where Muslims make up more than 20 per cent of the population. Tower Hamlets in London tops the list with 34.5 per cent.
But at the same time, some Muslims are moving out of those clusters into more mixed areas. So while Tower Hamlets’ Muslim population grew 19 per cent over the decade to 2011, that is far slower than the UK growth of 75 per cent, or even London’s figure of 35 per cent.
“There are bigger clusters and more mixing at the same time,” according to Manchester University’s Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity. Its “index of dissimilarity” (a measure of integration) for Muslims fell from 56 per cent in 2001 to 54 per cent in 2011. Sikhs were slightly less integrated (61 per cent) and Hindus slightly more (52 per cent). The situation is improving, but only very slightly.
The reasons that ethnic and religious groups spread out isn’t easily trapped in statistics, but just about every study and analyst agrees that the strongest motivations here are education and employment. Most people who move away from the area where they were raised do so to get qualifications or jobs. The richer and better-educated someone is, the more likely they are to move and mingle, and maybe even inter-marry. To integrate.
So what are the prospects for those increasingly numerous children of Muslim households?
There are six state-funded Muslim primary schools, educating around 2,300 pupils. The Association of Muslim Schools says there are a total 156 dedicated Muslim schools in the UK, most of them privately-funded.
The Census data show 8.1 per cent of all school-age children are Muslim. But again, the distribution of that population is what counts, and Muslim children are often concentrated in particular areas.
In Tower Hamlets 66 per cent of school-age children are Muslim. In another seven London council areas, more than a quarter of all school-age children are from Muslim homes. And in Birmingham, several council wards have a figure above 60 per cent.
Many observers, including Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair, worry that Muslim schools tend to be “monocultural” and thus work against integration.
But a more important criticism of the education that many Muslims children receive may be that it is just not very good.
An article in the Curriculum Journal last year suggested that many Muslim pupils do worse than their peers for reasons including: “overcrowded housing, the relative absence of parental English language skills in some Muslim communities, low levels of parental engagement with mainstream schools, low teacher expectations, the curricular removal of Islam from the school learning environment, and racism and anti-Muslim prejudice.”
And if any group needs better education, it is Britain’s Muslims. The proportion of Muslims with no qualifications has fallen from 39 per cent to 26 per cent, but it still remains above the population as a whole, where the figure is 23 per cent.
The MCB is keen to talk up advances in the number of Muslims with degrees, which has indeed risen from 20.6 per cent to 24 per cent. But over the same period, the educational level of overall population rose faster: the share of British adults with degrees went from 19.8 per cent to 27.2 per cent. Muslims, having been more likely than the rest to have degrees, are now less likely.
Other religious groups also outperform British Muslims: 30.1 per cent of Sikhs have degrees, and 44.6 per cent of Hindus.
Muslim underperformance at higher education is at least partly down to gender. In the population as a whole, young women are more likely to go to university than young men. But among British Muslims, the pattern is reversed, with three Muslim boys going on to higher education for every two women. Equalising those numbers would send another 50,000 Muslim women university.
And when British Muslims do go on to university, some studies suggest they are less likely than other groups to attend the best colleges. Oxbridge and the Russell Group have been criticised in several studies for the low percentage of minority students they admit.
In the “higher managerial” and “higher professional” groups – company executives, lawyers, doctors – Muslims are only slightly under-represented. But lower down the scale, major gaps appear. Around 20 per cent of the UK workforce does “lower managerial, administrative and professional” , jobs, the first rung on the middle-class ladder. For Muslims, the figure is just 10 per cent.
Meanwhile, some 21.3 per cent of British Muslims have never worked, a figure that excludes full-time students. For the UK as a whole, the figure is just 4.3 per cent.
The outcome of this poor performance is unsurprising: Muslims are poorer, sicker, less likely to own their own homes and more likely to live in bad areas. And even as Britain gets richer, Muslims are sliding down the scale.
The 10 per cent of council wards that count as the most deprived parts of the country are now home to 1.2 million Muslims, around 46 per cent of the total. In 2001, just 33 per cent of British Muslims lived in Britain’s poorest places.
How much does this matter? Is Muslims’ poor educational and economic performance a problem for anyone other than Muslims themselves?
Research published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 2013 is useful here.
Based on BSA data and interviews with hundreds of British Muslims, it found that they were indeed more socially conservative than other Britons on gender roles in the home, divorce, premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage.
But comparing Muslims with other Britons, it concluded that “much of the difference on socio-moral opinions was due to socio-economic disadvantage and high religiosity, both factors which predict social conservatism among all Britons and not just Muslims.”
In other words, Muslims’ moral and social attitudes, the old-fashioned and illiberal attitudes that worry so many people aren’t so very different from those of other poor and badly-educated non-Muslims.
Many commentators and politicians approach integration as a cultural question, arguing that more should be done to persuade British Muslims to accept “British values”. Perhaps we’d be better off taking an economic perspective, accepting that a better aim is making them better off.
Worried about the rising number of Muslim children in our schools? Then you should hope they pass their exams, go to good universities and get well-paid jobs. Especially the girls. Really, turn more Muslims into fully paid-up members of the Waitrose-shopping, Audi-driving, Boden-wearing middle-classes and their values will take care of themselves.
James Kirkup is the Telegraph's Executive Editor - Politics. He has been a lobby journalist since 2001 and has a particular interest in subjects including economics and defence. Before joining the Telegraph he was Political Editor of the Scotsman, covered European politics and economics for Bloomberg, and reported from countries including Iran, Zimbabwe and the USA.