Labour leader Ed Miliband has appointed the Roman Catholic MP Andy Burnham – who believes that “faith schools should be open to all” - as Shadow Education Secretary. The appointment was announced today (8 October) as Miliband unveiled his new shadow cabinet.
This summer, Burnham expressed the view that faith schools “shouldn't be allowed to demand 100 per cent” of their students share their religion. He said he strongly supports faith schools in principle and that making them more open would “strengthen the position of faith schools in the community”.
The appointment was welcomed by the Accord coalition, which brings together Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and secular groups opposed to religious discrimination in school selection and recruitment.
Burnham made his comments on faith schools while speaking at a hustings event organised by the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) on 5 July. He expanded on his views when questioned after the event by freelance journalist Symon Hill, who is also associate director of Ekklesia, a Christian thinktank affiliated to the Accord coalition.
On that occasion Burnham said that, “It is better if schools are open to all who want to go there... It should be possible for someone to go there who doesn't share the school's religion”.
He added that he believes applicants' religion could be one criterion considered by a school and “count towards” their admission decisions. But he insisted that faith should not be the only factor in making such decisions.
Burnham's own view differs from the position of the Accord coalition, whose members believe that applicants' religion should not be considered at all in the selection of students or the recruitment of teachers.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the chair of Accord, said he was “delighted” by Burnham's appointment.
“I was at one of the hustings for the Labour leadership,” explained Romain, “When I asked the candidates their opinion on faith schools, Andy Burnham made the point that even though he personally came from a religious background, he felt strongly that they should be open to all and that RE should be on the national curriculum”.
Romain concluded, “It is very refreshing to see someone rise above their own personal preferences, put the national good first and consider social cohesion a priority”.
But it remains to be seen whether Labour will now adopt Burnham's view as its own policy. Before losing power in May, Labour generally opposed attempts to end religious discrimination in faith school admissions.
Accord (www.accordcoalition.org.uk/ ) is an alliance of civil society organisations, including trades unions, religious organisations and campaigning groups.
Current members include the Campaign for State Education, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the Hindu Academy, British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the Christian thinktank Ekklesia.