Baker accuses Catholics of faith-school 'lies'

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The battle over whether faith schools should be forced to admit pupils from different religious backgrounds is to be fought out next week in the House of Lords, despite a climbdown by the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson.

Under pressure from religious leaders and Labour MPs, Mr Johnson agreed to settle for a voluntary scheme that could see pupils of other faiths admitted to Catholic schools, so long as Catholic pupils did not lose out.

But the former education secretary, Lord Baker, has vowed to press ahead with an amendment to the education Bill that would compel new faith schools to open up at least 25 per cent of their school places to pupils from different faiths. The proposals have provoked furious opposition, particularly from the Catholic Church, which feared that once legislation had been passed introducing coercion and quotas, it could lead to secularisation of all schools.

But Lord Baker, who introduced major reforms to the state school system when he was education secretary in the late 1980s, angrily accused them of misrepresenting the proposal, which was principally aimed at the 120 Muslim schools seeking to enter the state system, and would not affect existing faith schools.

He accused the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, of running a "very deceptive campaign" based on "a tantamount lie". The Archbishop had written to all 2,075 Catholic schools in the country calling on them to lobby their MPs to oppose the plans.

Lord Baker told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If you have a group of primary Muslim schools starting, then some secondary schools, you have a closed community. They'll ask for their own inspection, they will ask for modifications to the curriculum and they will probably ask for family community law. If you have those ghettos, they will be closed communities. No other children will want to go into them. And the characteristics of a ghetto are to be underprivileged, disadvantaged and poor."

Mr Johnson backed down under pressure from backbench Labour MPs, who said the threat of government interference could lead to a defeat in Parliament.

Oona Stannard, chief executive of the Catholic Education Service, said: "I have been deluged with comments from the Catholic community. They were not prepared to stand by and see the prospect of Catholic children turned away while watching other children walk past them into our schools."

Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said it was "frightening" to see the Government back down as soon as the Catholic Church "bared its teeth".