BY ANDREW M BROWN
LEADERS of major religions have written to the Guardian newspaper saying pupils and parents have the right to choose the school where children will “flourish academically, socially and spiritually”.
The signatories, who included Oona Stannard of the Catholic Education Service, wrote the letter in anticipation of a motion hostile to faith schools that was debated at the Liberal Democrat spring conference last weekend.
The Lib Dems later voted to withdraw funding from faith schools that were not “inclusive” and that opted out of equalities legislation when selecting staff. The Lib Dems also voted to stop new religious schools on the basis of faith, a move critics say would divest them of any religious identity.
The letter urged Lib Dems to be “informed by facts and not conjecture”, and said: “We believe parents and students should have the right to choose the type of school where they can flourish academically, socially and spiritually. With faith schools making up over a third of the state schools in the UK, millions of parents are choosing them and only in cases where schools are full to capacity can faith be used as a criterion for allocating places.
“The idea of removing one of the means by which these schools of religious character protect and enhance their valued ethos would be a perverse and unjust way of responding to the increasing demand for places in such schools.” At a time of “genuine societal breakdown” faith schools taught “citizenship, tolerance, cohesion and respect” as part of their ethos, the letter said.
Lib Dem delegates had a choice “of supporting the heritage and future of these schools, or supporting a policy that would damage the thing which makes them successful.
“We hope that [the Lib Dems] choose to back the clear consensus of public opinion,” the letter said.
A poll last week showed 69 per cent of parents with school-age children thought schools should have a religious ethos.
The letter also coincided with research published earlier in the week by the Research and Information on State Education trust (RISE) which concluded that schools should be prevented from setting their admissions criteria.
Under the latest admissions code established in 2008 a faith school that has fewer places than applicants is allowed to discriminate between candidates on the basis of their religion.
But Prof Anne West of the London School of Economics claimed that some schools still asked questions that might be used as selection.