The Accord Coalition says it is "bemused" at the launch of a church schools award which claims to back inclusion but turns a blind eye to discrimination.
The Church Schools Award, launched yesterday (14 September 2010) with the support of the Church of England’s National Society and education division of the Methodist Church, emulates the Accord Coalition’s own inclusivity Award, which was launched in 2009.
However, the new church school award (www.churchschoolawards.com) deliberately ignores the admissions and employment policies of schools that discriminate against children and staff on religious grounds, while at the same time intending to celebrate Christian schools that advance "community cohesion and global citizenship."
This discrepancy "makes a mockery" of claims to promote genuine inclusion, says the Accord Coalition, which draws together a range of religious and non-religious education reform groups.
By contrast, the Coalition points out that its own Award (http://tinyurl.com/395a5zs) is open to all schools and looks at all aspects of how those schools operate. It aims to reward those that do the most to function in inclusive ways and build bridges between different ethnic and religion or belief communities, irrespective of their foundation.
The chair of the Accord Coalition (accordcoalition.org.uk/), Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, commented: "Some faith schools do not discriminate on religious grounds in their employment and admissions policy, and instead see their contribution to the education of children, regardless of their background, as an expression of their religious missions."
"However, there are other faith schools that actively damage community cohesion, by only admitting staff and children from a particular background. These schools help create religious ghettos where pupils can grow up removed from those from different backgrounds," he continued.
"Such schools undermine understanding between different communities and create an environment where mistrust between groups can more readily grow, potentially storing up problems for future generations to come," said Dr Romain.
He added: "We welcome attempts to improve community cohesion, but the commitment of the Church Schools Award towards inclusivity and advancing community cohesion seems at best insincere, and at worst a distraction from the negative effects that religious discrimination of many faith schools has on wider society. It is very troubling therefore that the Church of England and Methodist Church have chosen to support the Church Schools Award on this basis."
The Church School Awards will be presented at a ceremony at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, on 24 March 2011.
They are "designed to share examples of how Christian schools are often leading the way in developing activities that reach out beyond school gates to foster good community relations."
But the creators of the CSAs admit they "have been carefully designed to largely use information already collected by schools for other purposes (such as the Self Evaluation Form prepared for their Ofsted inspection)".
They also say it is designed "to avoid discriminating between church schools on the basis of their admissions or employment policies."
That is, they take no account of whether admissions or employment policies are restrictive or discriminatory.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, a co-founder of the Accord Coalition, said: "It is vital to encourage all educational establishments in fostering good community relations. This is something which needs to be based on personal contact between children from different backgrounds in and out of school, not just textbook theory.
"In this context, it is extraordinary and saddening that the new Church School Awards appear to have been established deliberately to bypass scrutiny of some key factors in overcoming lack of integration and cohesion - namely, the discriminatory policy framework on admissions and employment which allow publicly-funded religious foundation schools to favour or disfavour pupils and teachers on the basis of their faith affiliation or belief.
"Such discrimination needs to be brought to an end, and the churches should be at the forefront of supporting such reform on Christian grounds, rather than seeking to ignore or disguise the problem for sectional advantage," said Barrow.