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Schools accused of racial segregation

Ministers who want more church schools could find the Oldham row embarrassing. Fran Abrams and Clare Dean report.

TWO Church of England secondaries in Oldham which refuse to admit Muslims were accused this week of racial segregation as tension continued between Asians and whites.

All but a handful of pupils at Oldham Blue Coat and Crompton House are white - although almost a quarter of the town's young people are of Asian origin.

The disclosure comes as ministers announced that they wanted more church schools, while critics argued that taxpayers' money should not be spent on "divisive, sectarian" schools.

Last week Lord Dearing's report on church schools said that they should reflect the communities in which they are based: there are Anglican schools around the country where large numbers of pupils are Muslim.

The Church of England believes that its schools should have a strong Christian character but also be inclusive.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, attacked the Oldham schools' admissions policies after the General Election result provided more evidence of racial tension when more than 11,000 people voted for the racist British National party. Mr Willis warned the schools against "pandering to middle-class parents".

"If we drive pupils into racial ghettos we may see in England what has already happened in Northern Ireland. Education could become a breeding ground for faith division, religious division and also social and economic division," he said.

But Chris Berry, Oldham's director of education said the school polarisation was "acceptable". The issue, she said, was how people from different communities interfaced. One of the council's solutions is video-conferencing between predominantly white and Asian schools.

Most of Oldham's Asian pupils are Muslim but applicants for the town's academically-successful church secondary schools must have a vicar's reference to prove they are regular church-goers. Local church leaders are unhappy with the schools' decision to amit only Anglicans. Jan Ainsworth, education director for the Manchester diocese which includes Oldham, said church authorities would like to see both schools being more inclusive.

"This isn't what we want, and that is why Lord Dearing is saying we have to open up the church sector so that what we have can be shared more. But how do you change people's minds?" A number of schools in the area are virtually all-white or all Asian, as Asian and white families' tend to live in different parts of town.

Abdul Jabbar, a Labour councillor and vice-chair of governors at Grange secondary school, where 97 per cent of pupils are of Asian origin, said Asian parents were frustrated because they were unable to send their children to some of the town's most successful schools.

A pamphlet on religious schools to be published by The Humanist Philosophers' Group warns that acceptance of other cultures is unlikely if children rarely mix.

"We have clear evidence to the contrary from Northern Ireland, where the separation of Catholic schools and Protestant schools has played a significant part in perpetuating the sectarian divide."

Leading scientist Richard Dawkins, who has been vociferous in the campaign against more fairth schools, said it was monstrous to label children Muslim or Anglican.

And the Commission for Racial Equality said that while the schools were not breaking the law, it was a matter for debate between them and their local communities.

A government spokeswoman said faith schools were entitled to set their own criteria, as long as they were lawful. But they should be sensitive to the local community.

Analysis, 28, 29

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Lee Jasper, race adviser to London mayor Ken Livingstone said this week that black communities needed their own schools. He said the system was failing black pupils and called on black parents, teachers and business leaders to establish community and faith-based schools.

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