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Defender of the faithless

Comedian Linda Smith jokes about her job as 'supreme commander' of humanists. But, she tells Stephen Lucas, the rise of faith schools is no laughing matter

Dating "damaged Catholic men" has given Radio 4 comedian Linda Smith an idea of what faith schools can do to people.

And as the new president of the British Humanist Association she will be lending her voice to the organisation's campaign to halt the expansion of faith schools and to have humanist beliefs embedded in the RE syllabus.

Ms Smith, who has featured on Radio 4's A Brief History of Time Wasting, The News Quiz, Just A Minute and I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, said: "It was a total shock when I got the call. I did not accept immediately. I did not know I was a humanist for a start, so it was a bit of a leap to suddenly become the supreme commander of all humanists. I wonder if I will get a big car, and some kind of uniform, an Eva Peron get-up maybe."

The London-based comedian, who takes over from agony aunt Claire Rayner as the association president tomorrow, was contacted after taking part in a January Radio 4 programme called Devout Sceptics, in which she explained her beliefs which echo humanist philosophy. Humanists believe people can lead good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs, and can make sense of life using reason and experience.

The association is lobbying the Government not to increase the number of faith schools and to ensure they become like community schools: open to everyone and offering an education in all faiths.

Ms Smith said: "I do not think faith schools are a good thing. Generally speaking faith should not be part of children's education. It should not be presented as a) true, and b) good. You only have to look at Northern Ireland to see how faith schools have failed rather spectacularly to form any kind of social cohesion."

She joked: "My experience of faith schools is dating extremely damaged Catholic men. Once the Christian Brothers have finished with them it takes them the rest of their lives to get their confidence back."

Oona Stannard, chief executive of the Catholic Education Service said: "It is very sad if some people - whatever their education - had sad experiences. Hopefully it is just a tiny minority. I can only talk about my own education in a convent school which was a joy. I enjoyed being taught by very strong nuns, who - dare I say it - inculcated a feminist streak in me. I have no emotional scars."

A public consultation into the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's draft RE framework, in which humanism is included, is due to end on Monday.

No date has been set for its publication.

Ms Smith said: "My preference would be to have a philosophy syllabus which looks at all the world's beliefs and gives them equal weight rather than an RE syllabus."

Hanne Stinson, executive director of the BHA, said: "There was a concern that because she is a comedian people might not think it was a terribly serious appointment. But we have a reputation for being academic and we wanted to appeal to younger people."

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers shares the association's position on faith schools.

Speaking at the union's schools and social cohesion conference in London last week, Jerry Bartlett, acting deputy general secretary, re-asserted the union's belief that no more faith schools should be created: "It is our belief that the creation of further faith schools will create more fragmentation in society than already exists."

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