The Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling and the Christian think-tank Ekklesia have welcomed a suggestion from the Bishop of Oxford, that church schools should severely limit religious selection.
The Rt Rev John Pritchard makes his comments in an interview in this week's Times Education Supplement - saying that Church of England Schools should limit the proportion of pupils that they select on the grounds of belief to just 10 per cent of their intake.
This would be a major departure from previous policy, with some schools selecting 100 per cent of pupils on religious grounds.
The Bishop, who is also Chair of the Church of England's Board of Education and the episcopal spokesperson on education in the House of Lords, has spoken ahead of the publication of new Church of England guidance later this summer for diocesan education boards.
Some church figures have already attacked the bishop - but others, including Accord and Ekklesia have welcomed his call for radical reform, while saying that the end goal should be to remove 'religious selection' altogether.
The chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, said on 21 April 2011: "This is a very welcome step that attempts to help rectify current policy, by which religion and discrimination in schools have sadly become almost synonymous."
Rabbi Romain continued: "Schools should be inclusive and tolerant and no state-funded school should be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of religion for any of their teacher posts or any pupil places. That way we will help create a future society that is more inclusive and tolerant."
Symon Hill from Ekklesia, which has long advocated reform, told Radio 5 Live this morning that in moving towards the end of religious discrimination in its schools, the Church of England would be properly following in the footsteps of Jesus, who, he pointed out, addressed and invited all - not just those from the 'correct' religious group.
Over 20 per cent of state funded schools in England are Church of England schools, and most of its secondary schools and almost 45 per cent of its primary and middle schools are able to select all of their pupils on religious grounds if they are sufficiently oversubscribed.
Bishop Pritchard argues that Church schools should "serve the wider community", taking many more pupils of other faiths or of no faith.
Church of England General Synod member Alison Ruoff responded negatively to his proposal on BBC Radio 4 this morning (22 April), suggesting that allowing "anybody" into Church schools would "dilute" them and remove their Christian identity.
But Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, and cofounder of the Accord Coalition, says that this is the opposite of the case.
He explained: "The Bishop of Oxford is urging the Church of England to move in the right direction, which is to end discrimination on grounds of belief in publicly funded religious foundation schools. The principle of openness he is advocating is not just pragmatically appropriate, it is thoroughly Christian. The contrary idea, enshrined in current policy, that it is acceptable to take large amounts of taxpayers' money and use it to deny some children entry to publicly-funded schools because they are from the 'wrong' belief background, offends natural justice in a plural society. But it is also deeply unChristian. It undermines the core message of the Gospel, which is about self-giving love, not institutional self-preservation."
"The 'Christian ethos' argument, by which some try to defend discrimination, needs to be turned on its head. Excluding pupils because of their faith background or lack of it, or putting parents into a position where they have to lie about their beliefs to get their children into a school with limited places: such things are not 'Christian', they are morally wrong," added Barrow.
"A true Christian ethos is about being open to all on the basis of neighbourly need and concern, giving particular priority to those from poor or deprived backgrounds, taking an exemplary stand for social justice, and refusing to behave tribally by privileging 'our own' at others' expense," said the Ekklesia co-director.
The Daily Mail said this morning that the Bishop of Oxford's statement was also "the first time the Church has admitted that its schools are effectively academically selective".
Independent research indicates that faith schools often effectively cream off the brightest pupils from more advantaged backgrounds - rather than being successful because of their religious credentials, as some proponents of the status quo have argued.
Other concerns and objections over the cultural and demographic effects of religious selection revolve around questions of community harmony and the encouraging of understanding and direct contact between pupils from different faith, ethnic and social backgrounds.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain commented: "There has been a growing disquiet recently both within religious circles and generally as to the way in which faith-based schools may become sources of division within society. Schools, especially state-funded ones, should serve the community around them. The Bishop of Oxford's proposals will move Church schools back towards that direction."
The Accord chair added that change was also in the interests of parents and the wider community – and what they wanted.
“Evidence of support for a more inclusive admissions policy came in an ICM survey for Channel 4 last summer, which found that 59 per cent of adults believed schools should be for everyone, regardless of religion, while only last month a report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner found that pupils opposed schools selecting on the grounds of religion by 64 per cent to 20 per cent” said Dr Romain.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) has said that the Bishop of Oxford's proposal is a big step forward, but needs to go further.
BHA chief executive Andrew Copson commented: "Any reduction in discrimination has to be welcomed, but it remains outrageous that 100 per cent publicly funded schools are permitted to discriminate against children and parents on grounds of religion at all.
"We would encourage all people within the Church of England who believe in social justice, equality and fair access to public services to seek a total end to discrimination in their schools, on other religious groups to do the same, and on the government to end its support of religiously selective and segregated education at the public expense."
The Accord Coalition (http://accordcoalition.org.uk/) was launched in 2008 and campaigns to end religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions, and for all state maintained schools to provide Personal, Social, Health and Economic education and assemblies plus Religious Education that teaches children about the wide variety of religions and beliefs in society.
Its growing list of members and supporters includes the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the British Humanist Association, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the racial justice think-tank The Runnymede Trust. It also has members from the four largest groupings in parliament.
More from Ekklesia on the Accord Coalition: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/taxonomy/term/6953