A growing number of people from different religious communities are speaking out for the reform of faith schools in Britain, countering accusations that the call for change is just a secular fad.
Speaking at a well-attended fringe meeting hosted by the inclusive schools coalition Accord at the Liberal Democrats' Spring Conference this weekend, Anglican priest Jeremy Chadd and Jewish Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain welcomed the wider policy conversation opened up by Britain's third largest political party.
After an intensive debate in the main plenary session, the Liberal Democrats voted to put the onus on existing publicly funded schools of a religious character to be properly inclusive. New faith schools should not be allowed to select pupils on grounds of religion or belief, they said.
Some have complained that the policy does not go far enough, while faith-school providers attacked the idea of anti-discrimination reform before it had even been debated - writing a letter to the liberal-leaning Guardian newspaper in an attempt to preempt the change.
Around a hundred people attended the Accord (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/) fringe meeting, in spite of other large events happening at the same time. Some senior party figures were present.
Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of Accord - whose founders include the ATL union (Association of Teachers and Lecturers), the Christian think-tank Ekklesia and the British Humanist Association - explained that the coalition wants to reform the way faith schools operate and to achieve universal standards of openness and inclusion for all schools in Britain.
Its policies are to ensure that admissions policies do not operate on the basis of pupils’ – or their parents’ – religion or beliefs; that recruitment and employment policies do not discriminate on the grounds of religion or belief; that schools follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education about religious and non-religious beliefs – whether determined by their local authority or by any future national syllabus or curriculum for RE; that such teaching should be made accountable under a single inspection regime for RE, Personal, Social & Health Education (PSHE) and Citizenship; and that schools should provide their pupils with inclusive, inspiring and stimulating assemblies in place of compulsory acts of worship.
The Rev Jeremy Chadd, who introduced himself as "vicar of a very ordinary Anglican church in the outer city area of Sunderland" explained (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8907) why he, as a Christian minister, felt that reform was important - citing problems around admissions.
He said he hoped that in the light of the policy change considered by the Liberal Democrats a more open and less defensive debate could take place about faith schools policy.
The clergyman, who is also a tutor in practical theology, declared: "I continue to believe, from my own experience, that Christian schools with privileged and protected admission and employment policies not only damage and divide society, they also damage authentic Christian witness and principles, and ultimately are damaging to the church itself too.
He continued: "If we are to have publicly funded faith schools, then they must serve the whole community. They mustn’t exist to prop up the faith community, nor to offer escape routes from a more diverse real world to those who already have all the advantages in life. Nor must they create division in society. They need, if they are to be true to Christianity, (or, if I can presume to say it, to Judaism, to Islam, to any of the great faiths), to serve the whole community in humility and mutual respect."
Accord does not take a definitive stance for or against publicly funded religious schools, but brings together people of different views arguing for inclusion and change.
Its supporters include theologians, ordained clergy, an Oxford New Testament professor, Jewish leaders, Christian equalities campaigners, a journalist from a Sikh background, Hindus, the chair of the Muslim Forum, and a Buddhist chaplain - as well as authors, celebrities, educationists, scientists, several leading humanist figures and journalists.
At their recent conference the Liberal Democrats voted to end "the opt out from employment and equalities legislation for staff in faith schools, except those responsible for religious education".
They are also calling for all faith schools to be required to teach about other beliefs in a balanced way, something that most do not currently have to do.
Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley said: "This vote is a breakthrough. It is the first time that a mainstream political party has acknowledged that there are significant barriers that faith schools need to remove if they are to be fully inclusive. It is also the first time that a mainstream political party has pledged to tackle the barriers which stand in the way of achieving full inclusion in faith schools. As such the change of policy represents an important shift from denial that there is a problem, to acknowledgement that action needs to be taken."
He added: "It is important that those who take public funding for their faith schools, particularly those in the churches, now respond positively rather than defensively. The new Lib Dem policy is a crucial development in the public debate about how to make faith schools better, and inclusion is an agenda around which everyone should be able to unite."
Also on Ekklesia
'Why church schools can be less than Christian', by Jeremy Chadd - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8907
'A Christian case for Accord', by Simon Barrow - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7627