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The arguments both for and against faith schools are powerful and impossible to reconcile. ...
The arguments both for and against faith schools are powerful and impossible to reconcile.

Some argue the case for voluntary aided religious schools with substantial public funding was never strong in the first place. They contend the personal religious beliefs of individual citizens should not be a matter for the state at all.

They also suggest that many voluntary-aided faith schools, even if ostensibly comprehensive, operate a covert policy of selection.

They contend it is no longer possible to talk convincingly of an 'established' church with a small but identifiable number of other 'recognised' main religious communities. For them the case for a wholly secular education system has been strengthened rather than diluted.

In any case, there are parts of the country where parents have no option but to send their child to a denominational school, even though they may not subscribe to that faith or any faith at all.

Perhaps most important of all, a significant number of people point to Northern Ireland's unhappy political history, relating it to what they see as a divisive, sectarian schools system. They see any increase in faith schools as having the strong potential to foment sectarianism, bigotry, social division and violence.

But those in favour of faith schools deploy arguments which are hard to dismiss. On the assumption that schools should not, indeed cannot, be free of certain value or belief systems, is it not correct that, in terms of human rights, parents should be able to choose the belief system within which their children are reared?

If schools are not to be value-free zones, what is intrinsically wrong for those values to be rooted in religious belief?

The historic settlement Richard Austin Butler reached with the churches after the second world war made the enactment of the 1944 Education Act possible. But in 1944 no one could have predicted the extent to which the cartography of acknowledged religious faith and belief systems within the UK would have altered.

Nonetheless, any debate must start from Mr Butler's settlement. Further, an inclusive democratic society which tolerates, respects and values a spectrum of religious beliefs should take account of how the UK has increasingly become a multi-ethnic, multi-faithed society. Favouring some faiths, for largely historic reasons, at the expense of others cannot easily be justified.

New faith schools can be justified only if they are prepared to satisfy the requirements made of any publicly funded school.

They should:

-- Be able to demonstrate a real denominational need for their establishment of sufficient volume to justify whatever public expenditure is involved

-- Teach the national curriculum to both girls and boys

-- Justify the reasons for which they will teach religious education outside the framework of the locally agreed syllabus

-- Guarantee they will co-operate fully with the admissions policies for other schools in their area

-- Be prepared to admit children from other faith groups.

Peter Smith

General secretary, Association of Teachers & Lecturers

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