The Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling has welcomed the government's desire to improve teaching standards, but has expressed concern over specific proposals in the Education White Paper.
Accord, which links both religious and non-religious groups concerned about the way faith schools currently operate, says it is "deeply disappointed" over two key aspects of Michael Gove's paper on ‘The Importance of Teaching‘ released yesterday.
The chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain commented: "Firstly, it is highly regrettable that the Government has not used this opportunity to make Religious Education part of the National Curriculum."
He explained: "Britain today is a multi-faith society and so it is vital that all children are given a solid grounding in the other faiths and cultures amongst which they live, both as part of general knowledge and for the sake of social cohesion."
"Under the current arrangements, RE in faith schools can be overtly instructional and deny their pupils knowledge about other religions and beliefs in society, while RE in other state schools can be of such variable quality and quantity that in June Ofsted urged the Department for Education to review its current arrangements," said Dr Romain.
He continued: "It is particularly worrying that the Government has not addressed the poor provision of RE in so many schools, especially in view of recent evidence about the negative agenda that some of them have towards wider society and other faiths.
"Secondly, we are seriously concerned by the omission from the White Paper of the duty to promote community cohesion and the need for Ofsted to inspect schools on it. The duty to promote community cohesion was a significant measure introduced to address widespread public concern about faith schools and if – as we fear – the duty disappears, the Government will be backtracking on an important obligation.
"It is vital to ensure that greater freedom does not lead to a chaotic free for all in which bigots are allowed to poison young minds, but instead that schools promote a common base of shared values and a sense of British citizenship. Michael Gove is entirely wrong to describe schools’ assessment on the promotion of community cohesion as 'a peripheral issue'.
"‘For the Government to turn its back on promoting good inter-communal relations in schools would be a devastating statement of its priorities, which would harm the country's future social well being.
"There may be merit in devolving more powers to teachers, but the greater the freedom the Government gives to schools, the more important it is to have rigorous powers of monitoring," Dr Romain concluded.
The Accord Coalition (http://accordcoalition.org.uk/), launched in September 2008, brings together religious and non-religious organisations campaigning for an end to religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions.
The Coalition also works for a fair and balanced RE curriculum, for all pupils to receive Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, and for the removal of the requirement for compulsory collective worship. It does not take a position for or against faith schools in principle, seeking to bring people together to argue the case for substantial reform.
Its growing list of members and supporters include the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Hindu Academy, the British Humanist Association and members from the four largest groupings in parliament.