Government plans announced last week which will massively deregulate state funded schools have been criticised for their potential to increase religious discrimination against pupils, teachers and parents.
Teaching unions, educationists, local parents' groups, and policy monitoring bodies say it is vital that social inequality and discriminatory practices based on belief are not permanently locked into the school system through the proposed reforms.
In a formal response to a parliamentary question last week on religious foundation schools admissions, the government made it clear that it does not intend to prevent current or new faith schools from discriminating in their admissions.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, has pointed out that religious discrimination in admissions goes against what was implied in the Coalition Agreement, and against an explicit Liberal Democrat policy that no new schools would be able to discriminate in admissions.
Accord, the broad coalition for reforming faith schools which brings together people from a range of religious backgrounds alongside secular groups, says it will continue to press the government for fairness in its reforms, and to highlight unfair practices.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian political thinktank Ekklesia, a founding member of the Accord Coalition, commented: "Very serious concerns are being raised about the government's plans and intentions regarding the impact of Academies and 'Free Schools' on the balance of local educational provision, children from deprived and low income backgrounds, equal treatment for all, and public accountability for good practice and standards."
He added: "In the case of schools run by faith groups but funded by the general taxpayer, it would be quite wrong to see a further extension and institutionalisation of discriminatory practices in admissions, employment and curriculum content. The onus is on politicians and policy makers responsible for implementing new and existing schools initiatives to specify how these concerns will be addressed. General assurances will not be sufficient for those at the receiving end - including parents, pupils and teachers."
The BHA's Andrew Copson said: "It is highly concerning to us that so many of these new schools will be religious schools, especially in light of the government’s announcement that it will preserve in full the rights of these schools to discriminate against pupils, parents and teachers on the basis of religion. That this new government should not only preserve one of the most unpopular policies of the previous government, but extend and worsen its negative impact, is a betrayal of our children’s future."
He added: "The situation is even more alarming when we take into account the recent reassurance by government to lobby groups that faith schools can enforce their religious ethos through compulsory worship and through the curriculum, as well as through discrimination."
The state-funded education system should not be viewed or used as a vehicle for religious groups to promote their beliefs to the exclusion of others, said Copson.