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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 October 2006, 10:21 GMT
Q&A: Faith schools and quotas
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Girls in classroom
The government says schools can help prevent social division
The government suddenly changed policy on faith schools in October amid a massive row over a plan for quotas - but what was the plan and why has it failed?

What is the current row over faith schools?

The government has denied caving in to religious leaders by suddenly dropping a plan to force faith schools to take a quarter of their pupils from other backgrounds.

Former education secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker proposed a 25% quota for faith schools as part of a current bill. Education Secretary Alan Johnson signed up to the idea but then dropped it. He said a voluntary agreement with both Church of England and Catholic state-funded schools made it unnecessary. Lord Baker didn't take that down. He tabled an amendment in the House of Lords to reintroduce the proposal.

Lord Baker's plan was defeated. Instead, peers backed a government proposal to allow Ofsted, the schools watchdog, to monitor how well schools are doing at promoting "community cohesion" - jargon for how much contact they build with different groups or schools in their wider communities.

How would the quota have worked?

Lord Baker said he believed faith schools were separating children at the ages of five and 11 rather than helping them to integrate with each other in an increasingly diverse society. "We've only got the example in Northern Ireland to see where that leads," he said.

He was primarily concerned about Muslim state schools, saying he could not see how these children would be effectively integrated if they did not come into contact with children from other backgrounds.

The government agreed and proposed a quota for all new faith schools.

Why was the proposal dropped?

Alan Johnson says he has now struck a deal with both churches, the key players, under which they will accept voluntary local arrangements.

ENGLAND'S FAITH SCHOOLS
Church of England 4,646
Roman Catholic 2,041
Jewish 37
Muslim 9 (expected)
Sikh 2
Hindu 1 (expected)
However, the deal is unclear. In his letter to the Catholic Education Service, which had spearheaded the protests, Mr Johnson said it was not his intention to prevent schools meeting the demand for places from parents of that religious background.

Critically, any demand for places from other families "would be in addition to the demand for faith places" and subject to local circumstances and public consultation.

The Catholic Education Service says the government needs to make clear who exactly would be funding these theoretical extra places - a position supported by other faith groups.

Why did faiths oppose the plan?

Faith groups historically are wary of government interference, even though they are part of the state system.

But the crucial factor for all the groups was a fear that if they were forced to take in children from other backgrounds, they would be unable to serve the needs of their own communities.

How many faith schools are there in the UK?

There are approximately 7,000 such schools in England, the vast majority being Christian. The next largest group is Jewish.

POLICY CLIMBDOWN?
Any requirement to provide non-faith places, where local circumstances make it appropriate and subject to public consultation, would be in addition to the demand for faith places
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There are two Sikh schools but the area of growth is in Islamic communities.

The Association of Muslim Schools (AMS) says there will soon be nine state Muslim schools.

There are some 140 other Muslim schools in the UK but most are so small they are unlikely to become part of the state system.

The AMS hopes to see 30 large Muslim schools transfer to the state system in the near future. Had the proposed quota become legally enforceable, Muslim schools would have been the most affected.

Harrow in west London will be home to the first Hindu state school in the country following a successful bid for government funding.

Is this a new debate?

Not at all. There have been significant political, social and educational divisions over faith schools for decades.

The critical issue at the heart of the debate is whether they aid or hinder the building of a cohesive society.

Prime Minister Tony Blair loudly supports faith schools. And despite question marks over integration, the government's much-trumpeted Commission on Integration and Cohesion has been told faith schools are out of bounds.

Critically, government policy is to encourage the development of faith groups, regarding them as a useful tool in building stronger communities in a multicultural society.

Demand for places tends to be high. But there are also dissenting voices in all communities, including Jews and Muslims who regard faith schools as bad for the passage of their children into wider British society.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
How the voluntary agreement will work in principle



SEE ALSO
Ministers face faith school fight
27 Oct 06 |  UK Politics
Faith schools quota plan scrapped
26 Oct 06 |  Education
Johnson in faith schools summit
24 Oct 06 |  Education
Schools 'key to defusing tension'
18 Oct 06 |  Education
Faith schools asked to 'open up'
17 Oct 06 |  UK Politics
Church schools in 'inclusive' vow
03 Oct 06 |  Education
School pupil quotas upset faiths
16 Oct 06 |  Education

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