The Archbishop of Canterbury has told Anglican schools to act as small churches, encouraging them to hold confirmation and communion services.
"The church school is a church," said Dr Rowan Williams in his first major speech on education. "More is needed in terms of religion in schools than clergy visits and choral services in nearby churches."
He said that the 5,000 heads of Anglican schools should take their schools'
commitment to religion more seriously. "This is not a case of brainwashing, but of asking hard questions about life and society. The culture in school can provide a crucial experience of what the body of Christ means, that teachers and pupils might not otherwise see."
Dr Williams acknowledged that local clergy would feel resentful if schools held confirmation and communion services. "Clergy can be very possessive," he said. "Delegating their responsibilities will seem like undermining their skills and there is a lot of work we need to do in terms of establishing professional boundaries, timetables and more training for clergy and teachers."
Some Anglican schools already hold Eucharist services on their premises, either in purpose-built chapels or improvised spaces in school halls or even libraries.
Dr Williams praised Bishop Luffa school in Chichester, West Sussex, which holds services in its hall, and Deanery C of E high school in Wigan, where communion classes are run jointly by a member of staff and a parent-governor who is a vicar.
His comments to the Association of Anglican Secondary School Heads came as leaders in the Church of England, Methodist Church and Free Churches are calling for a national syllabus in religious studies. They believe the current system of autonomy, which has produced up to 150 different RE curricula, has left many children ignorant of basic tenets of Christianity.
The Church of England is also considering spending pound;10 million on new schools to form an evangelical frontline amid declining interest in religion. One of the largest surveys conducted on religious belief in teenagers shows that half of young people consider themselves part of a recognised faith group.
Of the 29,000 13 to 15-year-olds in England and Wales surveyed for The Fourth R for the Third Millennium, published by Lindisfarne Books in 2001, 40 per cent believed in God. Anglicanism was the most popular faith with 8,000 subscribers.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "Half of children regard themselves as atheist or agnostic. Why can this decision not be respected?
"They should not be repeatedly subjected to religious pressure at school where they cannot escape, it is a violation of their human rights." But Canon David Jennings, from St Catherine's Church in Leicestershire, considers the proposals divisive. He said: "Anglican schools should not be promoting the faith, they should be educating children.
"Holding communion in schools creates divisions which young people should not be exposed to. Let clergy be clergy and teachers be teachers."
Other contributors to the conference warned Anglican heads against losing sight of the spiritual dimension of their leadership.
Professor Peter Vardy, vice-principal of Heythrop college at the University of London, said: "I think Anglican schools have lost their way and need to address more clearly and explicitly how to help children reach their potential. Anglican identity is rarely at the heart of their own self-understanding.
"We have become obsessed with results and outcome-dominated education. We are not educating people to make ethical decisions or think for themselves."
Mr Porteous Wood said: "It is time the Government called a halt to the expansion of church schools. Schools paid for by the taxpayer should not be used to promote religion. Church schools are for teaching not for preaching."
FAITH FLOURISHES IN A QUIET GARDEN
An air of quiet contemplation and meditation fills the new garden at Bishop Luffa school in Chichester.
The Quiet Place, with its plants and thought-provoking sculptures, has become a popular alternative to chapel for students at the C of E technology college in West Sussex. Nick Taunt, headteacher, has received numerous requests from pupils to hold Eucharist services in the garden. In the absence of a chapel, services are held annually in the school hall which is also used for recreation, lunch and assemblies.
Mr Taunt said: "The hall is in the middle of the school, indicating that spiritual life is central to the school's business. But the garden is a quiet place which could also be used for that purpose, giving pupils the time and space to reflect quietly on their faith."
Mr Taunt is keen to increase the number of Eucharist services and may introduce confirmation ceremonies after hearing the Archbishop's advice last week. He said: "I have always been inclined to hold confirmations in school and the Archbishop has encouraged me to open up the discussion with local clergy.
"I recognise the tension between the role of the school and the local church and there is a danger of treading on parish toes. We are a fluctuating community, with 200 pupils leaving and arriving each year, so it is important their faith is nurtured outside this institution too.
"But there are members of the school who see it as appropriate that they are confirmed within the school community and witnessed by friends."
If he went ahead with the services, all pupils would be expected to attend to celebrate the event with those being confirmed.