Undoubtedly, some religious schools do a good job - but probably no better than other schools with similarly supportive parents and a strong ethos.
Of course, it is important that our children are taught values, but the values that religious schools typically claim as theirs are not uniquely religious and are shared by all good schools: "We expect good old-fashioned virtues of good manners and hard work, irrespective of background" (head of a Catholic school, quoted in The Observer this month).
"Self discipline, respect, trust and understanding" are the strengths of Church of England schools according to the Archbishop of Canterbury (The Guardian). I recently visited the almost completely non-religious Middleton primary school in Nottingham, which has a humanist headteacher. It exemplifies all these ideals and more, takes good care of pupils' moral and academic education, and was highly-praised for its ethos by the Office for Standards in Education.
Religious schools begin with some advantages, and until league tables can be properly constituted to take account of them, we will never really know which schools are the most effective in value-added terms.
Religious schools can select pupils on the grounds of parental religious belief, which may itself be educationally advantageous - who knows? But, more significantly, this gives them the opportunity to select covertly on social or ability criteria. Parents who make a choice of school, as opposed to merely accepting the nearest one, may well be more educationally aware, more supportive of school and child. The more popular the school, the more selective it can be.
The consequence is almost bound to be better results. But not all religious schools do achieve good results - it would be interesting to know why some succeed and others do not.
The costs to society of religious schools outweigh the dubious benefits. Selection by faith is divisive enough, but increasingly, as Muslims, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists and the rest, all demand state-funded schools, there will be a racial element too - do we want racially segregate schools?
The prospect of intensifying a racial element in inter-school rivalry is a horrible one. We may not be able to avoid this in the independent sector,but religious and racial separatism should not be encouraged or funded by the state. If we subsidise some religious schools, it is difficult to justify refusing subsidies to schools of any religious variety, as long as there is sufficient demand.
The current legal definition of "religion" is probably broad enough to include even some cults. There must be serious doubts as to whether some religious beliefs are compatible with the national curriculum. Can creationists teach science adequately? Can some faiths meet national guidelines on RE or sex education, or conform to equal opportunities legislation?
Some humanists, including Professor Richard Dawkins, consider that the kind of religious indoctrination permitted in religious schools - which are exempt from the legal requirement on state schools not "to convert pupils, or to urge a particular religion or religious belief on pupils" (Education Act, 1944) - amounts to child abuse. The proper place for religious instruction, for those who insist upon it, is surely the home or the place of worship.
There is also injustice in the present system. Tax-payers, who subsidise religious schools heavily, can be denied entry to these schools for their children on religious grounds, even when they are the nearest or best schools in the neighbourhood. The present system encourages hypocrisy - for example parents pretending to be churchgoers to get their children into preferred schools.
It would be best for society as a whole, and particularly for inter-cultural understanding and harmony, if religious schools were abolished. It would be relatively simple for most of them to convert to a truly comprehensive, multi-faith, multi-ethnic intake, and with the same facilities, same values (minus religion), same head and same teachers, they should be able to continue doing a good job, if that is what they were doing.
Certainly, weak schools can always learn from stronger schools, of whatever kind, the value of firm discipline, sound moral principles, high expectations and good pastoral care - and thus raise standards for all, not just a chosen few.
Marilyn Mason is education officer for the British Humanist Association. For further information contact: The BHA, 47 Theobalds Road, London WC1 8SP. Telephone 0171 430 0908.Next week: specialist schools
THE RECENT success of an east London Jewish school in the Government-sponsored improvement tables raises some interesting questions in the context of whether denominational schools should be entitled to state funding.
Beyond Yesodey Hatorah's academic achievements - it is the second-most improved school in England - is another factor, that is of central importance to underlying policy in education as a whole.
The ongoing quest for ever-more impressive results in the GCSE league tables cannot be allowed to obscure the question of whether the school system is still meaningfully engaged in education and social development, or has capitulated to the principle of training and its blood brother, career building.
What sort of potential material for citizenship are we turning out and what are the values that are either supporting or inhibiting the desired outcome? A school like Yesodey Hatorah, achieves results that bear no relation to its inadequate resources and continual need to raise massive funding from private charitable sources.
That the Hackney school's underpaid staff, both Jewish and non-Jewish, working in dilapidated and cramped facilities, can generate the motivation to produce pupils of the quality it does, is a tribute to the fact that the school has the one essential, magical ingredient that holds the secret to the elusive quest for genuine standards - values.
It is a school whose ethos is underpinned by substantial concerns to do with personal, moral and social behaviour. This is where schools based on religious values often tend to distinguish themselves. The quest for academic achievement takes care of itself in a school where the children are, above all, encouraged to develop as decent, responsible and well-motivated people.
Ironically, yet significantly the accolades received by Yesodey Hatorah with its projection into the higher academic echelons of English secondary education has been received with mixed feelings by its principal Rabbi Abraham Pinter and his wife, who heads the girls' school.
In their view the GCSE tables do not reflect the essential core of their achievement. Their commitment to educating significant proportions of special needs pupils, for instance does not help them in this respect.
However, they take a great deal more pride in the achievements and socialisation of educationally handicapped children than in the credit based on the performance of highly able youngsters. Above all, they value the sense of community within the school and its ability to create a spirit of common purpose and mutuality within a population drawn from a surprisingly diverse community, albeit one with a shared commitment to Jewish religious values. Above all they are taught to respect family - an elusive formula increasingly articulated by successive governments.
The failure of Yesodey Hatorah to achieve state support is in many ways a reflection on the prejudice that continues to haunt such schools in the way they are perceived - the idea that private education should fund itself. However, this idea regularly fails to make the distinction between the kind of private education that is designed to foster privilege and advantage and what would be better described as independent education.
Without in any way contesting the right of those who have the financial means to buy their children the education they would wish, schools in the independent sector are generally motivated by quite distinctive and carefully considered principles. They are above all, value led. Whether they be Jewish, Christian, Rudolf Steiner or Muslim, they share the common belief that children's schooling should not be determined by their families' economic means.
More important, they are motivated by a desire to give their children an education led by cherished ideals and principles. They embody the hope and desire that to bear and educate children is an expression of faith in the possibility of developing a better world.
If indeed the Government is still genuinely concerned with education, then the issue of values is the element that must be addressed. The principle of a diverse and free society makes it entirely necessary that alternative educational models and practices should continue to flourish and, above all, be supported.
In some degree their achievements will be a source of inspiration and hope in an otherwise perplexing, parlous and increasingly anti-social world.
John Adler is a freelance journalist.