Andy Burnham, the only Christian amongst the five candidates standing for the Labour leadership, has said that faith schools “should be open to all”. He said it was wrong for any faith school to expect all its students to share the school's religion.
Burnham made the remarks while speaking at a leadership hustings event run by the Christian Socialist Movement on Monday 5 July 2010. He was speaking in response to a question on faith schools from Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of Accord, a coalition opposed to religious discrimination in school admissions and recruitment.
Later, Burnham reiterated his view and went into more detail when questioned by Ekklesia's reporter after the event.
“It is better if schools are open to all who want to go there,” he told Ekklesia, “It should be possible for someone to go there who doesn't share the school's religion”.
Burnham, a Roman Catholic, emphasised that he was not attacking faith schools, which he strongly supports in principle. He said that he was encouraging faith schools to be open to all because “this would strengthen the position of faith schools in the community”.
He added that he believes applicants' religion could be one criterion considered by a school and “count towards” their admission decisions. This differs from the view of the Accord coalition, which supports admissions policies that take no account of the religion or beliefs of students or parents.
But Burnham insisted that faith should not be the only factor for admission decisions. He said that schools “shouldn't be allowed to demand 100 per cent” of their students belong to their religion.
Romain's question, critical of faith schools, was greeted with applause from much of the audience, although all candidates responded by declaring support for faith schools in principle.
Only Burnham commented on the issue of admissions, although Ed Balls, a former Schools Secretary, said that faith schools “must be cohesive”. David Miliband argued that “faith schools are not divisive by being faith schools”.
Diane Abbott suggested that after years of Anglican and Catholic faith schools, it would seem unfair to deny them to other religious groups. She pointed out that she had backed the establishment of a Jewish school in her constituency.
Accord (www.accordcoalition.org.uk/) is an alliance of civil society organisations, including trades unions, religious organisations and campaigning groups. Current members include the Campaign for State Education, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the Hindu Academy, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the British Humanist Association and the Christian thinktank Ekklesia.