Lib Dem tells party conference that Labour's expansion of faith schooling could sow the seeds for riots and sectarian hatred. Warwick Mansell reports from Bournemouth
RAISING the number of state-funded faith schools could fuel the racial and sectarian conflicts that led to riots this summer, unless the schools are made inclusive.
Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said Labour's White Paper proposal to allow new religious schools in areas where local communities support them was "ill thought-out and potentially divisive".
Speaking at the party's annual conference in Bournemouth, Mr Willis said:
"We have to question whether teaching children in different ethnic and religious communities is the way to increase racial harmony.
"Given the sectarian protest at Holy Cross Primary (in Belfast), the violence in Oldham this summer and the abuse of Muslim schools following the attacks on the USA, can we promulgate a vision of a global society when we seek to divide children by faith and, increasingly, ethnic background?" Despite his reservations, Mr Willis would not unequivocally oppose expansion of faith schools. Instead he said any new faith schools should be open to children from other religions and to those whose parents were not religious.
At a fringe meeting, Baroness Walmsley, a Liberal Democrat education spokeswomen in the Lords, said: "Many church schools are good but the Government should be asking what it is that makes them good rather than perpetuating sectarianism and divisiveness. Parents want more good schools, not more church schools."
However Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned against overreaction against Islamic schools, following the terrorist attacks on America.
He said "If (Muslim) people say we want our children educated in schools that respect our values, in the same way as Anglican, Catholic, Jewish or Greek Orthodox children we should listen to that and not be overwhelmed by what has happened, perpetrated by a very small terrorist group which the Muslim community in this country deplores."
Mr Willis said the Government's plans to let half of all secondaries become specialist by 2005 risked creating fresh inequalities in a system already failing thousands of children.
He said more than 23,000 pupils had left school this summer without a qualification, and that the teacher shortage was hitting those secondaries with the worst GCSE results hardest.
Meanwhile, he launched the first major review of party education policy for nine years. It will look to Europe, Canada and New Zealand for inspiration, after Mr Willis attacked Labour's obsession with American models.
The review is to be led by TES columnist and Liberal Democrat adviser Professor John Howson. It will announce its policy proposals at next year's conference.