Protests from secular and teaching groups have met the announcement by the British government that a large number of faith-based schools are to be brought into the state-funded sector with a pledge to remove "unnecessary barriers" to religious groups.
Ed Balls, the children's minister, who has previously been considered a sceptic on the subject, said additional money would be made available to allow the hundreds of private religious schools to convert to the public sector.
Finance will come from a mixture of local authority funds and cash direct from Whitehall.
Mr Balls insisted on Monday 10 September 2007 that the expansion would be tempered by new rules forcing all schools to promote better community cohesion and understanding between ethnic and religious groups.
The minister presented a joint policy statement (Faith in the System, published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families) with Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Greek Orthodox and Sikh representatives.
Opinion surveys in the UK repeatedly show that a significant majority of people are sceptical about faith schools, but the government claims its policy is about diversity.
In a speech aimed at diverting critics, Mr Balls also declared that officials would "root out" any school guilty of using banned admissions rules such as over-complicated application forms and interviewing pupils to discriminate against other children.
Under the government’s proposals, privately sponsored city academies run by faith groups would have to admit at least half of children from other faiths and non-believing families.
The move is likely to lead to a rise in the faith school provision for Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Seventh Day Adventist and Greek Orthodox children.
It has been greeted with fury by secular groups. The National Secular Society (NSS) says that faith schools are by their nature divisive and that the government’s move is “plain madness”. It is also angry that a city academy is refusing to listen to a protestor because of his links to their website, which the academy accuses of being biased and intemperate.
On 7 September the NSS said the evidence was that “‘Catholic education’ is primarily about indoctrination”. In March this year its president wrote that even liberal or moderate religious believers share or excuse “the same beliefs that motivate bombers and theocrats, misogynists and homophobes”.
However, National Secular Society general secretary Keith Porteous-Wood struck a different note this week in response to the latest ministerial announcement: “The Government is arguing against all the evidence”, he emphasised.
He continued: “Schools based on religion are divisive, they create injustice in their admissions procedures and they cause parents to lie and cheat to get places in publicly funded schools. The academic success of church schools has been shown repeatedly to be because of their ability to select – which they do in many instances quite ruthlessly, and this is why they are popular with some parents. …[t]he majority of parents … want good schools, not religious schools.”
In a less publicised way, similarly tough questions about faith schools, in theory and in practice, have also come religious sources – including chaplains, rabbis, the Hindu Council UK, Muslims for Secular Democracy, and the Christian think tank Ekklesia.
Dr Mohamed Mukadam of the Association of Muslim Schools said on Monday that public suspicion about extremism remained a barrier to the setting up of more Muslim schools.
In the past, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, who strongly backs government plans, has said he would not want large numbers of Catholic children attending Muslim schools as he would not want them brought up in "that particular atmosphere."
His remarks were echoed at the time by the Rt Rev Tom Butler, Anglican Bishop of Southwark. They were being interviewed for the BBC TV documentary ‘God and the politicians’ in September 2005.
Critics say that this illustrates the problem faced by many parents whose main or only choice may be a denominational school they feel unsure or unhappy about.
Andrew Copson, education officer of the British Humanist Association, which has sought to cooperate with critical voices on the issue from faith groups, commented this week: “To expand state-funded faith schools is to increase discrimination in school admissions against pupils and their parents and to increase employment discrimination against teachers. It means more pupils will be segregated by religion and ethnicity and denied the right to a fully balanced education or to school with children from different backgrounds and learn with and from them.”
Commentator Thomas Sutcliffe, writing in The Independent Newspaper, declared on Tuesday: “Faith in the System doesn't actually include a single piece of hard evidence that faith schools will ‘promote community cohesion’… It simply offers a number of anecdotal examples of faith schools which attempt to redress their own cultural homogeneity with exchange visits, comparative religion studies and outreach programmes.”
Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, said the separation of pupils on religious lines was "as unacceptable… the last thing this country needs".
This view is backed by teachers. Earlier this year, the 160,000-strong ATL (the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, formerly the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association), which has a strong denominational school constituency, issued a position paper calling for significant changes in policy relating to faith schools. It consulted both secular and faith organisations.
ATL General secretary Mary Bousted asked this week "why schools, in which the majority of funding comes from the state, should, as the government proposes, nurture young people in a particular faith?"
“Again and again opinion polls have shown clear majorities opposed to faith schools and their expansion but the Government is dismissing these serious and widespread concerns as mere ‘misunderstandings’,” added BHA’s Andrew Copson.
“We need a less heated debate which focuses on research and gives priority to inclusion and anti-discrimination”, commented Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow. “Turning the whole argument into an exchange of insults between religious and anti-religious vested interests misses the point and lets both government and the schools themselves off the hook.”
He continued: “At present the government seems to think that those questioning the propriety of schools that select and configure on the basis of faith are merely a minority motivated by resentment. A larger coalition of concern – drawing together people from a variety of backgrounds and life-stances – is needed to demonstrate that the way forward in the public sector is community schools for all.”
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says faith schools offer “not a programme of indoctrination, but the possibility of developing a greater level of community cohesion through the understanding of how faith shapes common life.”
Others argue that learning to understand the role of both faith and non-faith perspectives does not require denominational schools but should be part of a broader civic education.
Ekklesia agrees that accusations of indoctrination are often exaggerated or inappropriate, but says there are significant problems in areas like access, employment, equalities and common standards. It says that the public debate about schools sponsored by faith and other bodies (including businesses and non-religious charities) should move towards clear common policies and frameworks of practice to ensure openness, fairness and non-discrimination at all levels.
“Education should be about broadening contact, horizons and understanding. That means encouraging a real mix of pupils from different backgrounds. It means providing a level playing field. The idea of selection on the basis of religion is, we believe, wrong in principle,” says Barrow
Around 7,000 of the 21,000 state schools in England are faith-related, with the great majority linked to the Church of England and Catholic churches.
Ekklesia says it is fair and reasonable that all publicly funded schools should be able to demonstrate that they not to discriminate on religious or other grounds in admissions, do not to impose confessional acts of worship, do not to proselytise, do not to recruit staff on the basis of religious restrictions, and actively support tolerance, diversity and respect.
The think tank has suggested that in taking their core values seriously, Christians should have a particular concern to redress disadvantage and discrimination in education, not to grant special privileges to church members or attenders.