Despite growing fear over racial segregation, the rise of religious schools seems unstoppable, writes Graeme Paton
The Labour Government has shown an unwavering faith in religious schools since sweeping to power in 1997.
Over the last nine years Tony Blair (and the five education secretaries who have served under him) has encouraged churches, synagogues and mosques to extend their influence over the education system.
Ministers, from the staunchly atheist Charles Clarke to the committed Roman Catholic Ruth Kelly, have been quick to justify the growth, saying the schools are both popular with parents and among the highest academic achievers in the country.
But critics, including teaching unions and many Labour MPs, have lined up to attack the Government's marrying of religion and education, branding it a divisive policy that exacerbates social and racial segregation.
This conflict was emphasised by David Blunkett, New Labour's first education secretary between 1997 and 2001, when he said in a speech last week that he "didn't feel wholly comfortable" with opening new Islamic schools, yet at the same time felt powerless to deny Muslim parents the right to faith schools when it was so readily exercised by Catholic, Anglican and Jewish families. "I plead entirely guilty to pragmatism," he said.
So what is the truth about the growth of faith-based education under New Labour?
Mr Blunkett was the first, but by no means the last, of the Prime Minister's education secretaries to embrace faith schools. Within 12 months of Labour gaining power, he had secured the passage of the School Standards and Framework Act through Parliament, which created new powers for state-maintained faith schools, including greater freedom to hire and fire staff along religious lines.
The same year Mr Blunkett trailblazed the policy of granting taxpayers'
money to Muslim schools for the first time.
In January 1998, following mounting pressure for equal recognition from Muslim communities, he announced that two private schools, the Islamia primary in Brent, north London, and the Al Furqan primary in Birmingham, would enter the state sector.
Despite enthusiasm in the Muslim community for more faith schools (half of Muslims responding to a poll by the Islamic Human Rights Commission last year said they wanted to enrol their children), further expansion stalled until the Government pushed the case for more last year.
Prompted in part by the atrocities of July 7 last year, which reignited the controversy about the place of Islam in modern British society, Mr Blair said that more faith schools - particularly Muslim schools - should be incorporated into the mainstream.
At the same time, the Association of Muslim Schools was given pound;100,000 to effectively audit it's 120 members, discovering which ones were best placed to reap the benefits of state funding.
This week it named seven schools that it believes can most easily move into the state sector, based on their facilities and teaching standards, although Idris Mears, head of the AMS, said he estimated at least 60 could transfer in the next decade.
Meanwhile schools linked to other faiths have continued to expand.
Outlining plans for the future of England's secondary schools, in a document entitled Schools: Building on Success, Mr Blunkett confirmed in early 2001 that the Government wanted to see more schools for different faiths, where parents wished.
To assist them, the requirement to find 15 per cent of capital costs was being cut to 10 per cent. This was cut again last year by Ms Kelly, Mr Blair's fourth secretary of state, who announced that faith groups'
contribution to building expenditure would be waived altogether as part of a one-off deal to rebuild every school, under the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme.
Charles Clarke, Blair's fourth education secretary, was no less radical in his embrace of faith. In 2004, following pressure from the churches, he boosted the standing of religious education by creating the first national framework for RE and pledged to enforce laws on collective worship (a promise repeated last month by the latest head of the DfES, Alan Johnson).
The net effect of Labour's religious zeal has been an expansion of the influence of faith groups over education.
In 1999, the first state Sikh school opened in west London and next year the first state Hindu school funded by the taxpayer will open in the capital.
Jacqui Smith, former schools minister, revealed in a Parliamentary question earlier this year that, between 1997 and 2005, 112 applications were made by religious organisations to take over community schools - turning them into faith-based primaries and secondaries - and 103, nine out of 10, were supported.
Recent policy programmes, include the creation of 200 city academies by 2010. A third of those opened to date are sponsored by faith groups. A new generation of trust schools, based on the academy model, seems likely to increase the number further.