White paper: Church schools gain in power but critics fear their divisive influence

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Church schools will gain a stronger foothold in education despite warnings that expanding the influence of religious institutions will help to encourage segregation.

Any religious organisation can now apply to take over a failing school and yesterday's White Paper has sent a clear signal that independent church schools wanting to move into the state sector and benefit from state money will be welcomed.

The Church of England, which runs 4,700 primary and secondary schools and wants to open another 100 secondaries, is likely to be the biggest beneficiary. There has also been demand for schools of different religions. Yesterday the Islamic charity, Hazrat Sultan Bahu Trust, announced plans for a £12m state-funded all-girls secondary school for up to 800 pupils in Birmingham.

Campaigners against the expansion of religious schools fear such schools will divide communities. Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said more religious schools would create a two-tier system. "The product of a selective, faith-based, exclusive education system is graphically illustrated in Belfast – is this the extent of Tony Blair's vision for our secondary schools?" he said.

Proposals from religious organisations to establish schools would have to be treated along with those from private firms or local education authorities. The White Paper makes it clear their applications will be looked upon favourably, saying: "We wish to welcome faith schools, with their distinctive ethos and character, into the maintained sector where there is clear local agreement."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said independent church schools that came into the state sector would have to demonstrate how they would involve the local community and work with other schools. That could mean admitting pupils from different religions or sharing expertise and even teachers with other schools.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said church schools could be more inclusive than other schools that were not faith-based but were dominated by pupils from one ethnic background. "Parents, if they want a faith-based education, will find one anyway and what we have at the moment is many schools in the independent sector from minority faiths," she said.

Canon John Hall, the general secretary of the Church of England board of education, said that its schools offered a Christian education but were not divisive or sectarian.