The government has pledged its support for the principle of faith schools - with the prospect of many more Muslim schools within the state sector.
Ed Balls says "faith schools are popular with many parents"
Schools Secretary Ed Balls and faith group leaders have formed a partnership - endorsing faith schools as a force to improve social cohesion in England.
Mr Balls says faith groups could raise standards in poorer areas, which may be through multi-faith academies.
But a teachers' union warns that faith schools can separate communities.
At a conference in London, Mr Balls presented a joint policy statement with Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Greek Orthodox and Sikh representatives.
Show of unity
Mr Balls committed the government to opening more faith schools where there was parental demand and the faith groups pledged their support for social cohesion and the principle of fair admissions.
6,850 out of a total of 21,000 schools, large majority either Church of England or Roman Catholic
37 Jewish, 7 Muslim, 2 Sikh, 1 Greek Orthodox, 1 Seventh Day Adventist
1.7 million pupils
21% of faith school secondary pupils from ethnic minorities - 17% in non faith schools
The schools secretary rejected claims that this show of unity was an attempt to repair the damage from a short-lived attempt by the government to require faith schools to admit a quota of pupils from outside this faith group.
Instead he said it was a reflection of the importance of working in partnership with such a large, successful part of the school system.
"I fully recognise that faith schools are popular with many parents," he said.
"One thing we've learnt as a government is that having a distinct ethos, strong leadership, a commitment to promoting opportunity for all, those are the kind of schools where parents want to send their children.
"And there are many faith schools which pass that test with flying colours," said Mr Balls.
He told the conference that faith schools were a longstanding partner in the drive to raise standards, particularly in more deprived areas.
"Faith schools take very seriously their historic mission to reach out to support children from lower income or disadvantaged backgrounds," said Mr Balls.
As an example, he said that in Oldham there were plans for a joint Church of England and Muslim academy.
There could be new faith academies - in addition to those replacing existing schools - in which half of the places would be for children from faith groups and the remainder from the wider community.
Mr Balls also stressed that faith schools must not use any form of covert selection - such as expensive uniforms, complicated admissions forms or expensive school trips.
In support of the Faith in the System joint statement, the Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, said it was a myth that faith schools had fewer children from ethnic minorities or from less well off backgrounds.
The schools secretary said any expansion in the faith school sector would depend on demand from the local community - but that the school building programme could help to meet the demand for more Muslim schools.
While there were 376,000 Muslim children aged between five and 15 at the last census, there are only 1,770 pupils in the seven state-funded Muslim schools in England.
However Dr Mohamed Mukadam of the Association of Muslim Schools said that public suspicion about extremism remained a barrier to the setting up of more Muslim schools.
There are over 100 independent Muslim schools which could transfer into the state sector.
Shadow schools minister Nick Gibb said that faith schools played an admirable role in providing choice for parents within the state education system.
"Their position needs to be strengthened and modernised in our increasingly multicultural society."
But the support was challenged by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
General secretary Mary Bousted asked "why schools, in which the majority of funding comes from the state, should, as the government proposes, nurture young people in a particular faith?"
Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said it was "a sure-fire recipe for separation, and future conflict to encourage children to think of themselves primarily as being of a particular religion, rather than encouraging them to concentrate on what we all have in common".