Leading article: Faith and reason

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The Independent Online

As a secular and liberal newspaper, The Independent naturally believes in the separation of the church and state. The disestablishment of the Church of England is a nettle that ought to have been grasped in Britain long ago. But given that it has not been, we understand the need for politicians to work within the anomalies thrown up by these unsatisfactory constitutional circumstances. One such anomaly is the existence of several thousand state-funded Church of England schools in the UK, and the privileged position they enjoy over other religious schools.

In a country that long ago sloughed off its monocultural religious character - and which now plays host to an impressive range of different religions - fairness demands that, if CofE schools have access to public funds, so should Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and other religious teaching institutions, the majority of which currently exist outside the maintained sector. For the state to continue to finance CofE schools almost exclusively gives the unfortunate impression of discrimination. The Government was therefore right in its latest education Bill to invite more faith schools to join the maintained sector.

There is a growing body of opinion in Britain that says faith schools of all stripes should be denied funding. It is argued that by encouraging a "sectarian" education system the Government is storing up trouble for future community relations. We do not share that view. For one thing, faith schools are not about to disappear if they are not funded by the state. There is clearly a demand for them from some parents. And no government is going to order them to be shut down.

It is surely better, therefore, to bring such schools into the state system so they can be properly inspected for compliance with teaching standards and the national curriculum. This will mean that obviously deficient, or extremist, institutions can be identified. An inclusive policy also gives the Government more leverage over admissions. The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, in a speech yesterday, confirmed that a quarter of the intake of new faith schools should be "non-believers". This seems a reasonable quid pro quo.

We must not allow the present hysteria over the role of religion in our society to blind us to the central issue here: education. The reason faith schools are often popular with parents is not because they offer a segregated education (although that clearly can be the case sometimes), but because they achieve good exam results. Practicality, rather than idealism, should govern official policy on education. And this means more state-funded faith schools.