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Blair ensures triumph of faith

Estelle Morris may have doubts about the expansion of religious schools but the enthusiasm of a higher power has helped the churches prevail. Jon Slater reports.

TAXPAYERS' money has been set aside to fund 44 new religious schools despite doubts among senior figures in Whitehall about the controversial policy.

The pound;121 million plans are the first concrete sign that the Government intends to press ahead with its policy in the face of widespread opposition.

The proposals include 15 newly-built schools, one Church of England secondary, and 14 primaries: eight CofE, three Roman Catholic, two Muslim and one Sikh. The others would be created by changing the ethos of existing schools. All would have to be approved by local school organisation committees.

There had been speculation that the Government was putting the policy on the back-burner amid concerns over increasing racial segregation.

Last September's education White Paper appeared to water down the Government's commitment by saying that religious schools would only be set up with the approval of local communities.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris is believed to be among those who harbour private concerns about the wisdom of expanding faith schooling.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair and schools minister Stephen Timms are both Christians and strong supporters of religious schools. They have won the argument, defeating a campaign by Labour backbenchers to overturn the policy.

The decision to set aside funds underlines the extraordinary success of the churches in promoting their interests in education during the past half century. Governments of all political persuasions - regardless of their commitment to inclusion in other areas - have proved anxious not to antagonise the churches over faith schools.

One reason for this is the popularity of the schools among crucial middle-class voters, but the churches also seem to know how to couch their arguments in terms that appeal to both main parties.

A good example of the way in which the church leaders work was the report into the future of faith schools, by Lord Dearing. While the exercise was presented to the outside world as a genuine inquiry, the outcome - including the call for an expansion of state-funded church schools - was in fact cleared in advance with ministers. Part of the deal was that church schools would take pupils from different backgrounds.

George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently argued in The TES that church schools should take pupils of other faiths or none even if it meant turning away Christians. But church schools, particularly Roman Catholic, are keen that they should admit other faiths on a voluntary basis - and not be forced to by law.

Once again they appear to have won: ministers rejected the demands of Labour backbenchers led by ex-Cabinet minister Frank Dobson to force the schools to accept pupils from outside their faith. Indeed, churches remain legally entitled to exclude pupils from non-practising families even if that means the taxpayer picking up the bill for places not filled.

More evidence that the churches have the ear of ministers comes in recent legislation. The Church of England won 73 concessions during the passage of Labour's School Standards and Framework Act - including measures on the governance and independence of voluntary-aided schools.

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