Tuesday, January 26, 2010

David Cameron wants a boom in faith schools

The biggest expansion of faith schools since the 19th century would be encouraged by a Tory government, David Cameron signalled yesterday.

Senior figures in the Roman Catholic Church have already expressed a strong interest in running the 'free schools' proposed by the Conservatives.

Under the plans, faith groups, charities and businesses could apply to operate the new schools using taxpayers' money.

The Tory leader cited his six-year-old daughter Nancy's 'excellent' education at a Church of England school as he declared himself a supporter of faith schools 'politically and personally'.

Labour has been accused of undermining faith schools by overhauling admissions rules and robbing them of the power to select children on religious grounds.

There are about 7,000 state-run faith schools in England and several hundred more in the private sector, the vast majority of which are Christian.

Education watchdogs say there is evidence that as many as a fifth of private faith schools fail to teach about other religions.

But Mr Cameron said yesterday: 'I support faith schools, I think they have a lot to bring to education.

'I'm in favour of choice and discretion. I think that actually drives up quality and standards in our education system.

'Faith schools often bring a culture and an ethos to a school that can help them improve. I'm a supporter politically and personally.'

Tory sources say the party envisages the biggest expansion of church schools since the establishment of thousands of 'national' schools almost 200 years ago.

The Conservative plans would be in an Education Bill passed as a priority if the party wins power.

Parents, charities, businesses, universities and other not-for-profit organisations could apply directly to Whitehall to set up the free schools, which would be independent from local authorities.

The blueprint, based on similar reforms which proved hugely popular in Sweden, would smash the state monopoly on school provision.

Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham and a leading figure in Catholic education, said:

'The free schools idea interests me greatly because, of course, that was exactly how Catholic schools were founded - by local communities getting together, pooling their resources.'
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