Religion means divide and rue

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
Church schools provoke fierce reactions. Tony Blair sees them as a key to raising standards. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford scientist, says that they can be "lethally divisive". This week we report the disturbing story of two Anglican schools in Oldham which refuse to take Muslim pupils, though the latter make up around a quarter of the neighbourhood's young people. These admission policies reinforce racial divisions in a deeply divided town.

The Government is determined to increase the number of church schools: a Bill announced in this week's Queen's speech will increase state support for them by reducing their capital costs. But ministers have pursued their plans with an eye to the political expediency of expanding a group of schools which is popular with parents, and a cavalier disregard for the social consequences. Any politician who has even a rudimentary grasp of the role played by religious schools in the history of Northern Ireland knows the danger of educating children in a segregated system.

Lord Dearing, who reported last week on the future of church schools, made no such mistake. Though he backed the idea of another 100 chrch schools and argued that they must develop their Christian ethos, he also insisted that they should reflect the community they serve. Traditionally, many Anglican schools have done just that. Set up to serve communities in some of the poorest parts of the country, they today cater for pupils of all races and religions. At some, Christian pupils are in a small minority.

Equally others, like those in Oldham, have become white, middle-class enclaves which maintain the high standards so admired by the Prime Minister by selecting their pupils. As the head of one of the Oldham schools admits with astonishing candour, the religious belief of many of the middle-class parents who secure places there vanishes the moment their children leave school.

Tony Blair's new generation of church schools must follow the Dearing, not the Oldham, model. All church schools should reserve some places for members of their local community whatever their religion. Taxpayers in Oldham - or anywhere else - should not be compelled to fund schools from which they are automatically excluded. Children should never be educated in religious ghettos.

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