The government is being urged to reform faith schools to ensure they cannot discriminate against pupils and teachers on religious grounds and to give a clear commitment to inclusive, community-wide education for all Britain's pupils.
A new coalition involving a teaching union, religious groups, humanists, clergy, rabbis, academics and leading public figures is calling for fairer admissions policies in faith schools and equal employment rights for staff, regardless of their beliefs. It also wants to see a balanced curriculum, a consistent inspection regime and assemblies which reflect the true diversity of belief and culture.
The coalition, named Accord, will be officially launched in London on Monday. It is launched as new rules come into force which that make it legal for voluntary controlled schools to reserve the headship for those of one belief only, and for voluntary aided schools to discriminate against non-teaching staff on the basis of their beliefs.
Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, a member of the new coalition said: "Reforming admissions policies would be a good place to start in stopping discrimination. There are some faith schools that are 90% or even 100% funded by the tax payer and yet they only cater for, or prioritise, 5 per cent of the population."
Accord stresses that it is not a campaign against faith schools, but a coalition for inclusive education and the same rules and standards for all in publicly-funded schooling.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: "We need schools which embrace the diversity in our communities, not schools which divide pupils and staff by faith. All children - regardless of their religion, culture, and family income - should have equal access to the best possible education in a good local school.
"Allowing schools to pick and choose pupils is not the best way to achieve this or to create young adults with the confidence and personal skills to live and work in our vibrant multi-cultural society."
But the Faith Schools' Providers Group, a network representing the interests of state-funded Church of England and Catholic schools (the great majority) plus Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools, says that their schools do not discriminate and that they have "signed up to a shared vision for promoting community cohesion through schools with a religious character."
Critics say that if this is the case, there would be no objection to removing provisions that allow discrimination.
Children's minister, Kevin Brennan, has defended the government's stance, saying: "Parents should be able to choose the type of education and ethos they want for their children. Faith schools are here to stay."
But Simon Barrow, Ekklesia co-director and an Accord steering group member, said: "The fact of faith schools is precisely what makes policies to promote fairness and inclusion vital. By practicing selection on grounds of belief in admissions and employment, some are given advantage over others. This cannot be right. Nor is it what the public want, according to polling."
He added: "What we need is not the same old tired pro- and anti-faith schools debate, but a fresh approach based on actual practices rather than dogma or favouritism – a voice concerned with the needs of pupils, schools and communities, with community cohesion and inclusive schooling. This is what the broad Accord coalition is wanting to create."
More information about Accord will be unveiled on Monday 1 September 2008.