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Backlash against church schools drive

Leading scientist Richard Dawkins is among those attacking the 'divisive' plan for more faith schools. Clare Dean reports.

The eminent scientist Richard Dawkins is leading a growing chorus of criticism of the Government's plan for more religious schools.

Serious doubts about the proposals among academics and even clergymen have been fuelled by the Church of England's huge financial crisis.

Critics have also pointed to dwindling congregations and the difficulties church schools are having recruiting headteachers.

Writing in today's TES, Professor Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, who holds the chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford University, said no sane person would advocate setting up "sectarian" schools. "Who can justify spending taxpayers' money on them?" he asks, warning that religious schools "can be deeply damaging and even lethally divisive".

His concerns were echoed by Anthony Grayling, reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, who said: "Given the great harm that religions do ... in the way of conflict, war, persecution and oppression and preventing the growth of science and freedom of thought. I object profoundly to my taxes being used to this end."

Both Tony Blair and Education Secretary David Blunkett are keen supporters of church schools. Mr Blunkett has said that he wants to bottle the secret of their success.

Nearly a quarter of England's most successful secondaries are run by the Church, although inspectors say selection even purely on religious grounds, helps as it means they are likely to attract well-behaved children from stable backgrounds.

Last week's education Green Paper Building on Success confirmed ministers support for the Church. It came just two months after Anglicans announced plans for 100 new secondares.

The paper paves the way for more schools provided by the churches and other major faith groups. It announced it would give them pound;42 million towards capital costs and give faith groups the opportunity to manage and run schools in difficulty.

Lord Dearing, who chaired the review by the Church of England of its schools, had been talking to ministers about their plans. "The Green paper shows that the Government is listening and responding to what we have said," he said.

The paper's proposals have been widely welcomed by church leaders but criticised by the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association (see page 6).

Lord Dearing said: "It is because it is an increasingly secular society that people are saying they want these anchors in their lives.

"If the children aren't coming to us, we must go to them and that means not only through church schools but in community schools."

The move towards more religious schools comes at a time when three-quarters of Anglican dioceses are in the red, according to an investigation by the Church Times.

Earlier this year, a survey for the National Association of Head Teachers, found that church schools experience the most problems recruiting heads.

More than a third of Anglican secondaries have to readvertise a head vacancy. More than half of the top posts in Catholic secondaries were readvertised.

Some clergymen have joined Professor Dawkins in attacking the plans.

The Rev David Jennings, rector of Burbage and a member of the Leicester diocesan synod said: "I am not sure we need church schools in the society we live in at the moment. "Churches run the risk in a multicultural and predominately secular society of establishing something that is not entirely real and, at worst, quite divisive."

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