Page last updated at 23:02 GMT, Friday, 29 August 2008 00:02 UK

New pressure over faith schools

A ceremony on the site of the first Hindu school
The first state-funded Hindu faith school is due to open

Ministers are being urged to stop faith schools in England selecting pupils and staff on the basis of their religion.

Accord, a new coalition of secular and religious figures, wants the government to stop state-funded schools engaging in what they say is "discrimination".

It argues that all children should have equal access to good local schools and that segregating them on religious grounds harms community cohesion.

The government argues faith schools can help boost standards in deprived areas.

There are about 6,850 faith schools in England out of a total of 21,000 schools. The vast majority of these are Roman Catholic or Church of England.

But they also include about 40 Jewish schools and a handful of Muslim, Sikh and Greek Orthodox schools.

There are those who attend church in order that their children qualify for admission to a particular school
Rev Iain McDonald

In September 2007, Schools Secretary Ed Balls said the government would open more faith schools where there was parental demand.

But the move has angered some teachers who complain of discriminatory employment practices.

The Accord coalition is made up of religious leaders, humanists and teachers who have come together to call for, not an end to, but a change to faith schools.

It is being chaired by Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the minister of Maidenhead Synagogue.

He said: "Our aim is for every single school to welcome children from all backgrounds. It is a simple goal, strongly supported by the public, educationalists and students."

He added that as a rabbi he was committed to Jewish values but he also understood that no one would gain if this was done in a way that damages community relations.

Faith schools can be very over-subscribed because they often do better than local authority-controlled state schools.

And many have claimed their ability to select pupils on the basis of their faith means they can engage in covert forms of academic selection.

'Dangers of segregation'

Accord claims that forthcoming research shows the family wealth of pupils, rather than the religious ethos of the school leads to better than average grades.

One of the coalition's supporters, Reverend Iain McDonald, Minister of Southernhay United Reformed Church in Exeter, Devon said the present system "encouraged hypocrisy".

"There are those who attend church in order that their children qualify for admission to a particular school and never set foot in the church again after the children have been accepted."

General Secretary of Association of Teachers and Lecturers Dr Mary Bousted said: "All children - regardless of their religion, culture, and family income - should have equal access to the best possible education in a good local school.

"Allowing schools to pick and choose pupils is not the best way to achieve this or to create young adults with the confidence and personal skills to live and work in our vibrant multi-cultural society."

Children's minister Kevin Brennan said faith schools were a long-established part of the state school system in England.

"Parents should be able to choose the type of education and ethos they want for their children. The bottom line is that faith schools are successful, thriving, popular and here to stay.

"It is down to locally accountable councils and communities themselves, not some campaign group, to decide what sort of schools they should have."

As well as changes to the admissions and staffing criteria, Accord wants to see faith schools follow an objective and balanced religious education syllabus - covering a range of religious and non-religious beliefs.

It wants compulsory acts of worship to be replaced with stimulating multi-faith and secular assemblies.

These might feature religious leaders from different faith groups coming into the school to give talks in assemblies.

It says: "Given the dangers of segregation and the importance of community cohesion we need schools that welcome all and are committed to non-discrimination."

Call to offer faith class choice
24 Mar 08 |  Education
Faith schools set for expansion
10 Sep 07 |  Education
Faith schools quota plan scrapped
26 Oct 06 |  Education

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