Catholic education chief speaks of 'exasperation' over attack on Church-run sector
BY MARK GREAVES
ATHEISTS, teachers and liberal religious groups have formed a coalition attacking faith schools for being "divisive" and "discriminatory".
Campaign group Accord, which launched on Monday, claimed that schools which selected pupils and staff on religious grounds were harming community cohesion.
The group. which includes Anglican clergy, rabbis and atheists such as Philip Pullman, called on the Government to abolish selection on grounds of faith because of "the dangers of segregation".
Critics argue that this would effectively destroy the current system of religious schooling in England and Wales.
Accord's proposals have been strongly opposed by an alliance of religious figures representing the faith school sector.
Oona Stannard, head of the Catholic Education Service in England and Wales, described the organisation's claims as "spurious".
She said: "Accord members enjoy the freedom to express their views, and we respect this right, but it is exasperating to read that they would deny others the freedom to continue to offer schools with a religious character or impede those of a particular faith from obtaining such an education."
Miss Stannard said the success of faith schools was evident in their popularity and that the values they instilled in children helped to build cohesion rather than division.
She added: "It is a shame that at a time when we should all want to focus on getting the new academic year off to a good start we are diverted by hoary old chestnuts, misleading about what faiths schools are, who they are for, and what they do."
A separate statement signed by Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu representatives said the group's allegations were "a disservice to the huge value that faith schools add to our state education sector".
The Accord coalition was instigated by the British Humanist Association, the Christian think tank Ekklesia, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).
Other members • now include the Hindu Academy, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Socialist Education Association and Women Against Fundamentalism.
It is supported by Guardian columnists Polly Toynbee and Fiona Millar, academics A C Grayling and Bernard Crick and Anglican clergy such as the Rev Jeremy Chadd and the Rev Christopher Rowland, an Oxford professor.
The group proposes that worship in schools be scrapped and replaced by secular or multi-faith assemblies It also wants the Government to take away control of Religious Education, from religious groups.
According to Tony Kennedy, the coalition coordinator, several Catholics supported the group but did not put their names forward because they were worried about repercussions.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain, chairman of the coalition, said he wanted his children to inherit the values of Judaism but "not at the cost of relations between Jewish children and other children".
He said learning about other religions in class was "no substitute for children of different traditions actually seeing each other on a daily basis".
But Catholic commentator Melanie McDonagh argued in the Independent newspaper this week that a school could only function as Catholic, Anglican or Jewish if it was able to choose pupils and staff on the basis of their religion.
She said: "A Catholic school in which the children are drawn impartially from all religious groups and none, in which the staff, from the head down, are no more likely to be Catholic than agnostic, is simply not going to be a Catholic school, period. It will simply be a school which happens to have a funny religious name and which has a distant historical connection with the Catholic Church, by virtue of having been established by an order of nuns or whatever.
The launch of the Accord coalition follows years of mounting hostility to faith schools from teachers' unions and some secularist MPs. In March Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue of Lancaster was questioned by a Commons select committee concerned that his blueprint for Catholic education, Fit for Mission? Schools, signalled a rise in "fundamentalism". Last year Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds clashed with a local council which proposed replacing a Catholic school with an interfaith academy. He accused Kirklees Council of pursuing a "secularist agenda".
The ATL union made clear its opposition to the existence of state-funded faith education at its annual conference last year. Mary Bousted, the general secretary, said that faith schools should be required to pass a "community cohesion" test to justify public funding.
The hostility of the ATL towards faith schools is broadly shared by the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters / Union of Women Teachers, whose members agreed last year that no more state faith schools should be established.
In the wake of several teachers' conferences Miss Stannard announced that she would meet with all three union leaders.
She also urged Catholic teachers to take a more active role at their union and "speak up against the hostility towards Church schools-.
Last week Children's Minister Kevin Brennan was dismissive of Accord's claims, saying that faith schools were a long-established part of the state school system.
He said: "Parents should be able to choose the type of education and ethos they want for their children. The bottom line is that faith schools are successful, thriving, popular and here to stay. It is down to locally accountable councils and communities themselves, not some campaign group, to decide what sort of schools they should have."
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