Here is an alarming statistic: about a third of state-funded schools are now "faith" establishments. How this has happened in a secular country, where few of us attend a church, mosque or temple, is hard to comprehend. Religious schools are the most racially segregated, according to the British Humanist Association; it has published research suggesting that the majority of state-funded Sikh, Muslim and Hindu schools have no "white British" pupils. Yet new "faith" schools are opening all the time, thanks mainly to the Government's free schools programme.
Last week, Ofsted published a damning report on a Muslim free school in Derby, describing the Al-Madinah school as "dysfunctional". The school's shortcomings, including employment of inadequately qualified teachers, are too many to catalogue. The governing body has now written to staff, withdrawing a requirement for female teachers to wear headscarves, but the letter includes a revealing statement: "Until recently, in keeping with our ethos as a faith based school we believed that it was in the best interests of pupils at Al-Madinah school, their parents and the community that female members of staff cover their hair."
In a country which is legally committed to gender equality, how did anyone imagine such a policy was acceptable, let alone that it should be funded with public money? This episode highlights a major flaw in the thinking behind the free schools programme. Fifteen months ago, an Ofsted inspector visited the trust that proposed setting up the school. She reported that various regulations were unlikely to be met, including a requirement for all members of staff to undergo training in child protection.
Its curriculum sounded like a madrassa. It promised to encourage tolerance and respect but the school's prospectus was open about censorship; books and resources would have to "conform to the teachings of Islam" and anything considered "sensitive, inaccurate and potentially blasphemous" would be removed. Despite all this, the inspector recommended that the free school should be allowed to open.
Since 2010, about half the applications to set up free schools have come from religious groups. That isn't surprising; it's a fantastic opportunity for proselytising. The applicants have included nine private schools teaching an American form of Creationism which holds that the Loch Ness monster exists and disproves evolution. They didn't get through the process but almost a third of successful applications have a religious ethos. There is even a Maharishi free school in Lancashire that teaches "consciousness-based education", invented by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one-time "spiritual adviser" to The Beatles.
The purpose of education is to develop critical faculties. We don't have atheist schools or Lib Dem schools, and kids should be left to make up their own minds. The debacle in Derby demonstrates that religion has no place in state-funded education, other than as an optional subject.