State schools should promote common values, not religious divisions

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The Independent Online

Ronald Dearing, Lord Dearing of Kingston upon Hull, is an honourable and committed public servant with a dry sense of humour ­ he lists "car boot sales" among his recreations in Who's Who.

The objectives of his proposals to expand Church of England schools are worthy, but his sense of the place of the established church in national life is old-fashioned. The result is therefore confused, and its effects, if implemented, are likely to be both irrelevant to the challenge of raising school standards and socially divisive.

It is true that church schools, which are state-funded but run in the name of the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church, tend to have better exam results than "ordinary" state schools. It is even true that this advantage is not solely due to the use of religion as a form of covert social selection ­ although that certainly happens. There is something about the ethos of church schools which means that they tend to be more cohesive, purposeful and disciplined than others.

Further emphasising the religious character of schools, however, is not necessarily the best way to promote those qualities more widely. That is all too obvious in Northern Ireland, where a divided education system helps preserve a divided society. It is less obvious, but still the case, in urban areas with large Muslim populations, which cannot be denied state-funded single-faith schools when Christian churches have them.

Lord Dearing recognises the dangers. He wants new C of E schools to have a "core" of Christian (presumably C of E) pupils but to admit other pupils according to the "diversity" of the locality. That does not get round the problem that state schools are permitted to interview pupils to assess their "religious suitability". It is wrong in principle that pupils should be selected on grounds of their religion, but it is also wrong in practice because such interviews can be a cover for selection on all kinds of other grounds.

Lord Dearing's only safeguard is to urge the church to take up again the call to serve the poor which took it into the education business in the 19th century. He even admitted to journalists yesterday that this may depress average exam results, but urged church schools to "take it on the chin, go for it and be brave". That is, unfortunately, idealistic and naïve. If a school starts to drop in the league tables, many parents will start going to a different church to try to get their children into a less "brave" school.

The better answer would be to prevent schools discriminating against pupils who do not subscribe ­ or pretend to subscribe ­ to a set of beliefs. If the church has a mission to the poor, it should be delivered to all the poor, regardless of cultural background.

At least selection by academic ability had the potential to offer equal opportunities to equally able people regardless of their ethnic, cultural or class origins, and to do so in a relatively transparent way. Selection by nominal religion, on the other hand, has the potential to divide children along ethnic, cultural or class lines.

It is wrong in principle that state schools should be allowed to discriminate on religious grounds, either in their admissions policies or in the employment of teachers. (The Government is currently defending the right of religious state schools to recruit teachers only from among their own faith against European Union attempts to outlaw discrimination on religious grounds.)

Instead of eliminating these legally-sanctioned injustices, the previous Education Secretary, David Blunkett, seemed intent on reinforcing them. How his successor, Estelle Morris, responds to Lord Dearing's muddled report will be one of her first important tests.