Statement on religious education opens church schools up to accusation of double standards
Faith schools should teach pupils about other religions as well as their own in order to 'combat prejudice', leaders of the major faiths have said in a statement.
Religious leaders have signed a declaration backing the teaching of not only their own religion, but an awareness of the "tenets" of other faiths in schools.
However, the statement may open church schools up to accusations of double standards as they face growing pressure to abandon their own 'prejudiced' admissions policies which give preference to the children of parents who attend churches linked to the schools.
The signatories to the agreement include the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist organisations.
The joint statement with the Department for Education and Skills says that religious education enables pupils to "combat prejudice" and helps pupils to develop respect and sensitivity to others.
The agreement commits faith schools to using the non-statutory National Framework for Religious Education, drawn up in 2004, which encourages the teaching of the tenets of the five major religions.
"We believe that schools with a religious designation should teach not only their own faith but also an awareness of the tenets of other faiths," the statement said.
"We are fully committed to using the framework in developing the religious education curriculum for our schools and colleges."
Many religious schools already teach about faiths other than their own, but there is no legal requirement for them to do so.
The statement says religious education offers "opportunities for personal reflection and spiritual development".
It encourages pupils to develop their sense of identity and belonging and enables them to "flourish individually within their communities and as citizens in a pluralistic society and global community", they said.
But the declaration comes at a time, when widespread discrimination by many church schools in favour of those who attend churches is being highlighted by research which suggests church primary schools in England are less likely than local authority schools to admit children from poorer homes.
Jonathan Bartley from the religious thinktank Ekklesia said; "It is a welcome move that faith schools are acknowledging the need to teach about other faiths besides their own to 'combat prejudice'."
"Many church schools however need to face up to their own ongoing prejudice in their admissions policies. By continuing to give priority and preference to children who parents attend churches linked to the schools, they are giving off very mixed messages. Some might see this statement as a case of double standards."
Secularists also questioned the declaration. Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said: "This new announcement is merely an effort to counter accusations that single-faith schools are divisive and a menace to social cohesion. The announcement is, in effect, an admission by the churches that they have used these schools as a means of proselytising their particular faith.
"Simply devoting a few hours to talking about other religions does nothing to stop the real divisiveness of these schools, which comes from separating children on grounds of religion at an early age and keeping them separated until they leave school."
The statement's signatories were the Anglican Bishop of Portsmouth, the Right Rev Kenneth Stevenson; Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor; Jon Benjamin of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Munisha of the Buddhist Society; Sarah Lane of the Free Churches Association; Anil Bhanot of the Hindu Council; Kathleen Wood of the Methodist Church; Sir Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain and Indarjit Singh of the Network of Sikh Organisations.