BY MARK GREAVES
A FORMER Labour Minister has accused Schools Secretary Ed Balls of launching an "incomprehensible" and "near criminal" attack on faith schools.
Frank Field, a former Welfare Minister, suggested that Mr Balls's "rant" was motivated by his ambition to become the next leader of the Labour Party.
His criticism of the Schools Secretary follows accusations from the Conservative Party that Mr Balls is leading a "witch-hunt" against faith schools.
The education department released data last month that apparently showed faith schools breaking the new admissions code. Schools were accused of charging parents up-front fees and failing to take pupils with special needs. Mr Balls said such practices were "totally unacceptable".
But Catholic headteachers said the figures were. a "smokescreen" to hide an anti-Catholic agenda and pointed to errors in the Government's report.
Mr Field, MP for Birkenhead, said in the Sunday Telegraph: "Ed Balls's recent attack on faith schools [was] not simply incomprehensible, but near criminal. What is a Schools Secretary doing attacking the one group of schools which is marked out by its success? The PM ... must rein him in. A rant against faith schools may be good for positioning a candidate for the next leadership contest but it is deeply damaging to a Government that is trying to prevent itself being confined to a political life-support machine.
"Worse still, attacking schools which succeed is viewed with deep distaste. It scores negatively with voters who would prefer to see the success in faith schools replicated in their local failing schools. Gordon Brown should think of ways of extending their success, not curtailing it."
Last week Catholic headteachers united to reject claims made by the Government that faith schools were flouting the admissions code.
According to the Government's research, 110 schools in the areas of Manchester, Barnet and Northamptonshire were breaking the code. Of these, 87 were faith schools, and 33 were Catholic schools.
The main charge was that faith schools were forcing parents to fill in standing orders for "voluntary fees" costing hundreds of pounds. However, the Government was only able to single out five Jewish schools, which were levying the fees to cover security costs and religious teaching, and one Anglican school.
The Government published a list of schools that it believed were breaking the code in order to weed out pupils from poor backgrounds.
Kevin Hoare, headteaeher of Finchley Catholic High School, Barnet, one of the named schools, said the list was a "smokescreen", adding: "There is an anti-faith schools agenda at the moment and this may be part of it."
Julian Ward, headmaster of St Michael's in Barnet, said the Government had broken its own regulations by releasing incorrect information.
"They wanted to make an excuse for the fact that only 80 per cent of parents got their first-choice schools.
"They quickly asked their own department for something that would show that schools were working against the Government.
"Nobody asked us about it. They went on the Barnet website and that's why there were so many mistakes, They were only interested in creating a smokescreen."
Mr Ward said St Michael's had received an apology from the Government over recent allegations.