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FRONT LINE FIRST - EDUCATION

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RECENT UNSUCCESSFUL attempts to amend the Education Bill to tell faith schools how many non-believers to admit were...
RECENT UNSUCCESSFUL attempts to amend the Education Bill to tell faith schools how many non-believers to admit were at one with the general dishonesty of the debate on religious schools. (LGC, 15 February)

For a start, restrictions would be imposed only on new faith schools. Since there are plenty of Catholic and Anglican schools, this must disproportionately restrict Muslim, Jewish or Sikh schools.

Those same liberals who demand equal rights for ethnic minorities the loudest are equally quick to protest once Muslims start demanding the same rights to educate children in their faith as Catholics and Anglicans. They even claim that denying such equality will help race relations. There is a second set of arguments with London written all over them. We read anecdotal attacks in the Evening Standard on half-blind priests falling for a bit of blarney by agnostic parishioners wanting a school place.

And those who rail against new faith secondary schools clearly assume that Catholics in Cornwall or Muslims in Manchester are spoilt for choice.

As ever, the whole admissions debate is led by the capital's chatterers. Yet nobody faces up to what would happen if we did follow their advice. For a start, those who could afford private religious schools would pay.

In fact, many Muslim parents who can ill afford it do so already. Too often, those schools are poorly regulated, freed from proper inspection or the national curriculum, which would be required in the state sector.

So the answer is not to give parents choice if they belong to approved faiths while denying it to others. Instead we should consider two things.

First, there is merit in the Local Government Association's proposal that the government should allow new multi-faith as well as single faith schools. Pupils would have special provision made for their respective beliefs.

Some critics of faith schools like to cite the Northern Irish example as symbolic of what's wrong with faith schools: yet many parents there are lobbying for ecumenical schools with a clear religious ethos, not secular schools. It's worth leaving the door open for similar solutions here.

Second, admissions policies should be more open to make it easier for all parents to exercise their choice. More schools are now their own admissions authorities, including both voluntary aided and foundation schools. That is unlikely to change. But the system could be made a lot simpler.

In London, councils, churches and foundation schools should form a single admissions clearing house. It might reduce the power of a few individual heads, but it would be a lot easier for parents (chatterers included). Similar arrangements should be possible in other cities and counties.

Church schools have made a huge contribution to education in this country. There will inevitably be more in the future, not least as the profile of Britain's belief systems changes. Let's not pretend they are something they are not, if we genuinely want them to be more outward-looking in the years ahead.

Conor Ryan

Former political adviser to David Blunkett

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