Kelly angers secular group by pledging £500m to rebuild faith-based schools

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The Independent Online

The Government has pledged around £500m to rebuild every faith-based secondary school in England - overturning a 60-year-old rule requiring churches to contribute towards all school building costs.

The decision, the first major concession to faith schools made by the staunchly Catholic Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has outraged secular groups who claim taxpayers' money should not be used to aid selective, church-based education.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, has already announced that every secondary school in the country would be rebuilt under a £5bn refurbishment programme by 2015.

Under existing rules, that would mean voluntary-aided church schools - of which there are just over 500 in the country - having to contribute 10 per cent of the cost.

However, representatives of the Anglican and Catholic churches protested they would not have enough funds to cover the cost of such a programme. As a result, Ms Kelly agreed to waive the rule in a one-off deal to treat faith schools, which educate around 500,000 secondary school pupils, the same as the rest of the maintained sector.

Marilyn Mason, education officer of the British Humanist Association, said she was "annoyed" by the deal. "The BHA is opposed to faith-based schools in principle and one of our grievances is that they're not open to all pupils," she said. "If you don't happen to be of the right faith, you can't get your children into these schools.

"If they obeyed the same rules as other schools with the same admissions and employment arrangements, then the situation might be different."

The decision will benefit 350 Roman Catholic schools, 130 Anglican and 23 run by other Christian groups. Five Jewish schools, two Muslim and one Sikh school would also benefit.

Mr Brown also announced plans to rebuild half the country's primary schools under a separate programme during the election campaign and officials signalled the Government could waive the 10 per cent rule for the 3,800 church primary schools as well.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said ministers would reduce the capital grant made to church schools for other urgent repairs by £17m as a result of the deal. However, they would still receive £440m under this programme next year. She added: "All pupils deserve 21st-century facilities and the decision to include the voluntary-aided sector equally ensures we will deliver on that commitment."

Tony Blair and Ms Kelly have always signalled their support for faith schools - trying to encourage church groups to back the flagship programme to set up 200 privately sponsored academies to replace struggling secondary schools in inner cities.

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