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I blame George Carey. For years, we sailed happily and anonymously along in what are now known euphemistically as faith schools. Nobody bothered too much about our existence; we mastered the art of keeping our heads down and not rocking the boat. In that way, we managed to hold on to our historic privileges without anybody noticing too much. A bit like the Church of England, in fact.

Then George Carey noticed that we were attracting a lot of punters and declared - to our universal astonishment - that C of E schools are at the heart of the church's mission to the nation. Far from being as low-key as possible, we should seek distinctiveness and proclaim our virtues from the rooftops.

Sanctuary Buildings got in on the act. The encouragement of specialist colleges, the demise of the "bog-standard" comprehensive and a general emphasis on diversity and choice all coincided with the church's new-found missionary zeal.

Plans for an increase in the number of faith schools were announced and the sceptics sharpened their quills. "God may move in mysterious ways, but there is not much mystery about the way He runs His schools: He does it by selection," sniped Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. Ouch.

Mind you, asking Ms Toynbee to give a considered view of the place of church schools is probably akin to inviting Chris Woodhead to comment on the value of education research. Some of the opinion, frankly, has been codswallop. The familiar refrain of social divisiveness is now overlain with a thinly disguised charge that we are responsible for racial and religious segregation as well. Say that in the faith schools of Leeds and Bradford and the Lord's injunction that we should turn the other cheek would be sorely tested.

Exclusivity in the inner cities is rarely, if ever, anything to do with faith schools. It is far more likely to be a result of geography and demography - that is, where people have chosen, or been forced to live, for economic reasons.

Half the pundits are busy proving that our outcomes are no different to those in the maintained sector. The other half are asserting that our outcomes may, indeed, be different, but only because we have favoured intakes. Tails you win, heads I lose.

Inclusiveness is an easy catchphrase and a useful stick with which to beat us. Firing the bullets at faith schools alone is the real hypocrisy. Parental choice is at the root of the issue, but no politician would have the courage to tamper with that. Over-subscription for whatever school inevitably means exclusion. And the most exclusive schools in the land, state or independent, are only rarely faith schools. We need a better debate than the one we have had.

Catholic and Muslim schools are likely to stick with the overt aim of nurturing young adherents to their particular faith. Anglican schools, given their Establishment background, have traditionally had a much broader focus, based on religious literacy in a wide variety of faiths. Which flavour is appropriate when the taxpayer is footing the bill? And if we are to become part of the mainstream, it is obvious that, in the end, denominational transport privileges will have to go and our freedom over admissions will have to be significantly curtailed.

Faith schools will also have to take the lead in talking to each other; Northern Ireland might be a useful place to make a start. Otherwise, we will deserve to remain in the ghetto, where our role seems to be simply to irritate everybody else. On the other hand, annoying as it may be to some, we do seem to have a knack of hitting the button in relation to ethos. On the face of it, offering no apology for theology, insisting that materialism is a dead duck and warning that A* in maths isn't the doorway to heaven, may not look like a winner.

Parents, however, seem to long for their children to be part of a better world. They may not believe in God but they recognise a good education when they see one. Hypocrites they may be. But so was the Prodigal Son, and look what the Father did for him.

Dennis Richards

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E school, Harrogate

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