The Government is ready to back the creation of atheist schools as part of its series of reforms, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said yesterday.
He told MPs: "It wouldn't be my choice of school but the whole point of our education reforms is that they are, in the broad sense of the word, small 'l' liberal. They exist to provide that greater degree of choice."
His comments, made to MPs on the all-party Commons Education Select Committee, come after a group of mothers urged Professor Richard Dawkins, a self-avowed atheist and author of The God Delusion, if he would help to set up an atheist "free" school. Professor Dawkins replied: "I like the idea very much – although I would prefer to call it a free-thinking school. I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded."
The call for an atheist school comes in the wake of fears that the Government's plans could pave the way for more religious groups to run state schools. Between 35 and 40 of the 150 expressions of interest in the scheme are faith-based.
Mr Gove, whose two children attend primary faith schools, said he "recognised that there are some people who explicitly do not want their children educated in a faith-based setting". He added: "If Professor Dawkins wants to set up a school, we would be very interested to look at an application."
Faith groups wanting to take advantage of the scheme must pledge that they would keep only 50 per cent of their places open to admission on grounds of faith. However, Mr Gove said he doubted whether it would work the other way round. "I don't think we will have children saying in assembly, 'Our Father, which art not in heaven.'"
Neither the British Humanist Association (BHA) nor the National Secular Society support the idea of an atheist school.
In a wide-ranging interview with MPs, Mr Gove also announced the creation of an independent commission chaired by a Labour MP, Graham Allen, to investigate ways of ensuring that disadvantaged young people receive the best start in life. Mr Gove said that at present "rich thick kids do better than poor clever children" when they started school and "the situation gets worse".