BY ANNA ARCO
RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS are being subjected to a Government "witch hunt", a study has said.
Ministers claims that faith schools discriminate against poorer families. owe their academic strength to cherry-picking their students, as well as changes to the rules governing school admissions have created a climate of fear for the future of faith schools, a study for the centre-right think tank the Centre for Policy Studies claimed. It accused the Government of "phoney egalitarianism" and "control-freakery" in its treatment of faith schools as part of a bid to appeal to -a strident secularist lobby".
The study by Cristina Odone, former editor of The Catholic Herald, found that claims that faith schools were divisive, selective and that the "schools flout the law and ignore their duty to society" were unfounded, but had proved damaging to faith schools.
"One of things that made me really angry and prompted me to conduct this study was the atmosphere of fear and paranoia in faith schools that the Government's recent policies and accusations have engendered, especially among Catholic schools." she said.
"Catholic schools above all have nothing to be ashamed of. They have done tremendous things for the communities and for community cohesion. They are the most diverse of all the faith schools and more diverse than many state schools."
She said that most of Catholic schools she approached while compiling the data said that they could not afford to be seen speaking out against the Government's policies. Of the 30 faith schools of different denominations she approached in order to find the data, only a handful agreed to speak to her and allow her to use them as case studies.
In March Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and Schools Minister Jim Knight, publicly accused a number of faith schools of being in breach of a new. stricter admissions laws designed to crack down on so-called "cherry-picking", selecting of students through the interview process. The Ministers said that a "significant minority" were flagrantly ignoring the rules, at the expense of poorer children. These breaches, they said, included faith schools, which were failing to give priority to children in care and charging parents fees for state-funded education.
The schools denied the claims. It later turned out that the schools charging fees were Jewish schools. which needed the money in order to pay for religious teaching outside of school hours not funded by the state as well as extra security for the schools.
Miss Odone's study, entitled In Bad Faith, said: "The row that erupted resurrected the spectre of schools that are a law unto themselves. But, significantly, parents failed to step forward to confirm that they had been ill-treated by the various faith schools 'named and shamed' by the Department. Moreover, the three local authorities and the areas' religious education authorities soon rejected Mr Balls's allegations — instead of serious and shocking breaches there were, in the end, a few minor failures to adhere to the new code."
But the report argued that the "charge sheet that MI-Balls drew up against faith schools last March is highly damaging" and said that it was politicking on the Government's part at the expense of faith schools.
"The Prime Minister may acknowledge that his faith is important to him. But so is his standing with the Labour Party — all the more so given his record-low popularity with the voters. Gordon Brown knows that for the 'Old Labour' rump of the party, equally committed to secularism and comprehensive education, faith schools are anathema. Tony Blair and New Labour' were ready to ignore this constituency, but Gordon Brown carmot afford to," it said.
The report said that the 7,000 faith schools in Britain consistently outperformed normal state sector schools and that parents "are sending their children to faith schools in increasing numbers". The study also argued that they helped minority children, especially Muslims, feel more comfortable as both members of a religion and as British nationals, fostering community cohesion.
Miss Odone's report has come under criticism from Mr Knight, who said: "The Government agrees that faith schools are inclusive, offer a good education and are popular with parents. Faith-based schools are assured a secure future in the state system under this Government."