Setbacks for faith schools

Observations on religion (1)

It has been a bad couple of weeks for religious indoctrination in schools, with four small victories for those of a secular mind. First, the second-hand car dealer and Christian fundamentalist Sir Peter Vardy was forced to give up his attempt to turn Northcliffe School - a council-run establishment near Doncaster - into a city academy that would teach creationism at public expense.

Northcliffe is the only secondary school within reasonable distance of its local village. A group of local parents argued that they were being given no choice but to send their children to a school where they would be fed an extreme form of right-wing Christianity. After being threatened with judicial review by the National Secular Society, the council dropped its proposal to allow Vardy to take over.

However, Vardy is still on track to own and control seven city academies within the next decade, at all of which he will control the curriculum. He can - and will - force children to learn that evolution is just one theory, and that it is equally valid to suggest that God might have created the world in seven days. But Northcliffe represents a small victory for freedom.

Meanwhile, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has told four Catholic schools in Essex to stop discriminating against pupils who do not put a Catholic school as their first choice. The National Secular Society says that schools in at least three other dioceses - Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood - discriminate in similar fashion, and it has asked Clarke to extend his ruling to them.

There are the usual complaints that this will destroy the schools' "ethos". What it will destroy, with any luck, is their ability to lord it over neighbouring schools. Discriminating in favour of pupils of your faith is a way of creating a middle-class enclave in working-class areas. In non-religious primary schools, an average of 20 per cent of pupils are poor enough to qualify for free meals. At Church of England primary schools, the figure is 12 per cent, at Catholic primary schools 17 per cent, and in other religious schools 10 per cent.

Even the London Oratory, where Tony Blair sent his two eldest sons and which now has his daughter in the sixth form, will have to change its recruitment policies next year. It will no longer be allowed to interview prospective pupils with both their parents. But as other faith schools do, it will still be able to demand evidence of piety, usually in the form of a letter from the parish priest saying that he sees the parents and pupil at Mass every Sunday. This is another way of keeping out children of parents who don't value education enough to pretend (as many do) that they are devout worshippers.

Thus, while Charles Clarke has not yet dismantled the entire edifice of middle-class privilege in the state sector, he has taken some small steps towards equal opportunity.