Government loses faith in growth of religious schools

The Government has decided against backing more faith schools, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, Ed Balls, told MPs.

In what is being seen as one of the most significant policy shifts of the post-Tony Blair era in education, he told a Commons select committee: "It is not the policy of the Government nor my department to expand the number of faith schools. We're not leading a drive for more faith schools."

His comments are seen as a major departure from the stance taken by Mr Blair and one of Mr Balls' predecessors, the staunchly Catholic Ruth Kelly. Mr Blair made it plain that he wanted to see faith groups coming forward to sponsor his flagship academies – set up to replace struggling inner-city schools – on the grounds that faith schools had better exam results than the national average and could pass on their expertise. He sent his own sons to the Catholic London Oratory school in west London.

In addition, Ms Kelly brought in legislation allowing independent schools to opt in to the state sector. Most of the schools thought likely to take advantage of the move were said to be to Muslim private schools.

Mr Balls' comments came as he was being questioned on new legislation which obliges all schools to promote community cohesion. They also follow calls from teachers' leaders to abolish the 7,000 state-funded faith schools as a growth in their numbers was leading to "segregated schooling".

Barry Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the committee, warned that some Catholic schools were taking a more fundamentalist approach to teaching about religion and moral values – citing the example of the Bishop of Lancaster, the Right Rev Patrick O'Donoghue, who instructed Catholic schools in the North-west to stop "safe sex" education and put crucifixes in all classrooms. An attempt had also been made to ban groups such as Amnesty International from Catholic schools because of its support for abortion.

"There is no neutral teaching of these kinds of subjects in some of these schools," Mr Sheerman said, arguing that the hard-line stance did not promote the kind of partnership that ministers wanted to see between different faith and non-faith communities.

Mr Balls said: "In some local communities, there is support for faith schools, in some there are schools moving from the independent sector to the state. Other communities are clear that faith schools aren't the right schools for their communities. It is up to the local community to decide what it wants. We're not leading a drive for more faith schools."

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at the University of Buckingham, said it had been wrong to argue that church-school pupils did better in exams because of a religious ethos. It was because they could be more selective on admissions, he said.

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