Leading article: Faith schools must confront homophobia

The debate on homophobia at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference in Harrogate yesterday will not have allayed many people's concerns about where faith schools are taking education in this country. Delegates overwhelmingly backed a motion calling on the union to investigate the extent to which teachers and pupils face discrimination and abuse in these schools on the basis of sexual orientation.

No one would suggest that homophobia was an exclusive feature of faith schools, still less that teachers in these schools, as a group, consciously countenanced it. The problem is that it is always going to be much harder to combat such prejudice in a school where the background ethos is confessedly religious than it is in a secular school, where at least bigotry cannot shelter behind the mantle of religious conviction. It seems no coincidence that schools which source their core values in historically intolerant creeds are often intolerant about all sorts of other things, such as sexuality.

Regrettably, the problem may get worse rather than better as religious groups of the most ardent form seize the opportunity to set up free schools, the first of which open in September. Faith groups are in line to run four of the first 11 free schools approved by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

Overall, it is hard to square the encouragement that the Government is giving to faith schools with the recent call by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, for us to build a more cohesive society, united around an agreed set of British values. By their nature – no matter what safeguards are built into the procedures for admitting and recruiting staff and pupils and monitoring the curriculum – religious schools emphasise differences between people rather than uniting them, besides which their religious-based value systems seem bound to clash with the goals of a modern, liberal society on topics like sexuality.

Faith schools may be here to stay but the least we are entitled to expect of them is that they clamp down hard on those forms of intolerance that society has long since deemed unacceptable.