Leading article: A circular argument

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Sometimes it is revealing to trace the genesis of an idea. Take the idea that religious schools should have a quota of pupils who are from a different background. It was first floated in the Cantle report into the northern race riots five years ago. It talked about whites and Asians living parallel lives and never meeting, talking or being bound together as a community. A quota of "others" in each school would help.

The idea was not taken up. There ought to have been a warning in that. For separation is not restricted to faith schools; it is there in community schools too, because of where people choose to live and the lifestyles they prefer to adopt. On the ground things were more complicated than a quota from on high might allow.

Yet the idea resurfaced again this year in David Cameron's speech to the Conservative Party conference. Other faiths should do as the Church of England has promised and set aside a quarter of all places in new schools for outsiders. He was roundly applauded. So much so that a former Tory education secretary, Lord Baker, proposed the idea be made compulsory. Next the Government jumped aboard the bandwagon and said it would adopt the idea. Its spin doctors even hinted the idea could be extended to existing schools.

It was then that the notion once again collided with political reality. Catholics pointed out that their schools were, according to Ofsted, already more socially and ethnically inclusive than any other schools, as well as academically very successful. Jewish groups insisted they already practised far better ways of promoting social cohesion than quotas. Practical questions were raised about the consequences of turning children away from schools their faith groups had set up and still partly financed. And what would happen when it became clear that there was little demand from non-Muslims parents to send their children to Muslim faith schools?

The Government belatedly saw all this was more trouble than it was worth. To Lord Baker's alarm, it backed down. It was right to do so. The idea of new, state-funded, faith schools being encouraged to admit a proportion of their intake from other backgrounds is a sound one. But it should be a recommendation, not a legal requirement.

The present situation is riddled with anomalies. But the proposed cure would not address the ailment. It might even make things worse.

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