Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Q & A: Faith schools and RE

School/church graphic
The number of faith schools has increased over recent years
Pupils in faith schools should be taught about other religions, faith leaders have said.

We explain their agreement.

What have the faith leaders agreed to do?

Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic and Church of England leaders have agreed that pupils in their faith schools should be taught the principles of the other major religions as well as their own.

They have signed a joint statement with the Department for Education and Skills which says pupils in faith schools should be taught "an awareness of the tenets of other faiths".

They say they are committed to following the government's National Framework on Religious Education, which encourages this.

Their statement says that a broad RE curriculum will "enable pupils to develop respect for and sensitivity to others, and enable pupils to combat prejudice".

How will it work?

Faith schools will teach the main principles of other religions, while maintaining their own faith as the overriding ethos of the school.

The agreement is designed to extend the principle of tolerance and respect for others' beliefs.

Schools would be free to decide how and what to teach about other religions - they would not be obliged to teach, for example, that all religions are equal.

Don't schools already teach a broad RE curriculum?

Many faith and non-faith schools do - but the national framework published in 2004 is non-statutory.

It encourages schools to teach pupils an awareness of the principles of the "five main religions" - Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism - as well as Christianity - throughout the main key stages of the school curriculum.

Did the faith communities feel under pressure to make such a statement?

Many faith leaders may wish to demonstrate that faith schools are already inclusive and do not serve to separate children by religion.

Some faith schools do already admit a quota of pupils from other religions.

BBC education correspondent Mike Baker says the government's planned reforms for England's schools have highlighted concerns that the system could lead to some segregation on religious or other grounds.

It plans to create "trust" schools, which would be free to set their own admissions criteria and have freedom over their curriculum.

Critics of the plans say they will increase the potential for segregating children within the school system.

And last year the then Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, expressed concern that some independent faith schools needed to do more to promote principles of mutual tolerance and social inclusion, and criticised Islamic schools in particular.

Are children also taught about atheism or humanism?

The national framework document recommends that pupils at Key Stage 3 (roughly 12 to 14 years of age) should have the opportunity to study secular beliefs such as humanism, and other religions outside of the main five.

The British Humanist Association says children should be educated together, as this is the best way to prepare them for the multi-cultural society in which they will live.

It has questioned the value of the agreement, saying the signatories are not those who run faith schools and there is no statutory requirement to compel schools to teach an inclusive RE curriculum.

How many faith schools are there?

The Department for Education says there are almost 7,000 faith schools out of around 22,000 schools in the state maintained sector - both primary and secondary.

Most of these are Church of England or Catholic schools, but the government also funds Muslim, Sikh and Jewish schools. There are more religious schools within the independent sector.

The government has generally encouraged more faith schools and defended their values, despite the opposition of some Labour backbenchers who fear they have not done enough to reach out to other faiths.

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