The Government is facing a growing rebellion by Labour MPs over its plans to increase the number of faith schools.
During a two-day debate that starts today, up to 60 backbenchers are expected to support an amendment jointly tabled by the former cabinet minister Frank Dobson and Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrats' education spokes-man, which would force schools to accept all-comers.
The plan to increase the number of faith schools has the personal support of the Prime Minister. But, if the amendment is agreed, the schools would be limited to taking 75 per cent of their pupils from their own religion – reserving one in four places for children of other faiths or none at all.
Mr Dobson said: "I am concerned that millions of pounds of public money are going into schools that can exclude on religious grounds. If they were to do it on racial grounds, there would be an outcry."
He predicted that if ministers were given the freedom to vote according to their beliefs the amendment would have majority backing among Labour MPs.
Mr Willis is planning to appeal to Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, to support the amendment. He described the debate over the amendment as "a trial of strength between the Education Secretary and the Number 10 policy unit". Ms Morris has signalled her support for faith schools to be inclusive, and Mr Willis said he would ask her to "show leadership and stand up against Downing Street and its policy advisers".
He added: "What really worries me is the prospect of fundamentalist schools – not just Muslim but Jewish, Roman Catholic schools – at a time when we should be breaking down the barriers between religions."
He said Tory MPs as well as Labour and Liberal Democrats supported the amendment.
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