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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 15:10 GMT
Faith school plans face MPs' challenge
roman catholic school
Critics say faith schools mean segregation
Labour MPs are threatening a Commons revolt this week over the government's encouragement for more single-faith schools in England.


It is vital that Britain's schools provide opportunities for all children whatever their background, religion, or culture

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat
The former health secretary, Frank Dobson, has tabled an amendment to the Education Bill which would make it illegal for new faith schools to require children or parents to attend church as part of their admissions procedures.

And he would make new schools take at least a quarter of their students from other faiths or none.

He has the backing of the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Phil Willis, but Mr Dobson has said he also expects 50 or 60 Labour MPs to support the motion.

The government has said already that it wants faith schools to be "inclusive", taking in children of other faiths or no faith.

Disturbances

Its original plan to make it easier for faith schools to be set up became even more controversial than it might have been in the light if the riots in Oldham and Bradford last summer.

A report on the riots said that ethnic and religious segregation in schools were partly to blame.

The Cantle Report proposed that schools, dominated by one ethnic group or religion should give at least a quarter of their places to children from other backgrounds.

Frank Dobson's amendment would make that compulsory for new religious schools.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said it was important that faith schools were open to all children.

'Divisive'

But so far ministers have been wary of making inclusion compulsory, which they believe would lead to "municipally-administered religious quotas".

Mr Dobson hopes the government will accept his amendments. If not, he believes at least 50 Labour MPs might support him.

He says he thinks faith schools lead to divisions in society, as witnessed in Northern Ireland.

"It seems to me not a good idea that we start dividing children on the basis of religion while they are still at school."

The archbishop of Canterbury, the government, the reports on the riots, had all said church schools should be more inclusive, he said.

Tussle

Phil Willis characterised the Commons debate as "a trial of strength" between the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, and the Number 10 policy unit.

"It is the moment of reckoning for the secretary of state and whether she can establish her control over the Education Bill, and the faith schools clause in particular," he said.

"It is vital that Britain's schools provide opportunities for all children whatever their background, religion, or culture.

"How can a government that aims to end social exclusion promote in its schools a system designed to do the opposite?"

Complaint

The National Secular Society said the proposed changes did not go far enough.

"The running costs of these schools are paid for entirely from public funds," it said.

"Faith schools amount to a third of all schools and in some counties there are more faith schools than community schools.

"In such circumstances it is completely unacceptable and unfair for places to be allocated based on the parents' belief.

"This means that the many parents who are not of the requisite faith - or are not prepared to pretend they are - can be at a disadvantage in securing a school place for their child."

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Former Cabinet Minister Frank Dobson
"Cohesion in our society is under threat at the moment"
See also:

22 Nov 01 | Education
Call for U-turn on faith schools
14 Jun 01 | Education
Church of England schools to expand
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