The Church of England could be given the power to run thousands of secular schools, the Times has reported, in a move that could "bring the education system under religious control" according to secular campaigners.
Under a deal with the government, The Church will be forced to preserve the character of non-faith schools and community schools joining a Church of England academy chain would not have to change its admissions policy, religious education lessons or employment terms for teachers, The Times said.
The Church will be forced to preserve the character of non-faith schools and community schools joining a Church of England academy chain would not have to change its admissions policy, religious education lessons or employment terms for teachers, the paper said.
Bishops will also have the power to appoint governors at the schools.
But the move has caused disquiet among secular groups, who said the decision would irreversibly increase religious influence over state schools.
Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, told the paper: "This will surreptitiously bring the education system under religious control. It will lead to the further alienation of school children who are from non-religious or religiously unconcerned families.
Education Secretary Michael Gove praised the standards and popularity of church schools during a seminar at Lambeth Palace yesterday and urged a continuing partnership with the Church.
In a statement Gove said: "We would not have so many great state schools in this country without the Church of England.
"I know the Church does a wonderful job helping to raise educational standards and in providing a safe and loving environment for hundreds of thousands of children.
"However, there is much more we can do together. I want the Church to recover the spirit which infused its educational mission in Victorian times and support more new schools - especially academies and free schools - to bring educational excellence to the nation's poorest children."
Approximately one million children currently attend Church of England schools.
There are 4,484 Church of England primary and middle schools, a quarter of the total, and 193 secondary schools.
The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Rev John Pritchard, who leads education policy within the Church, believes small village primary schools will want to join academy trusts led by its schools to secure their future, and promised the would be "safe with us", The Times said.
Bishop Pritchard said: "This will be a way for them to have the security of a larger body with mutual support, with resources that are much more extensive."
He added: "Dioceses have the privilege and opportunity to put local church and local school into the same box, as it were, and say that's where the mission of the Church lies."
The bishop said Gove had set the Church a challenge to "raise our game", which "echoes our own determination to make a real step change in the way we serve our communities, working to the highest standards".
Bishop Pritchard said: "I think people may not realise the significance of what looks like a small technical change but actually allows the mutual support, the drawing together of resources, experiments in collaboration.
"It allows a whole lot more and it will enhance the educational experience of millions of children."
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, said the vision for church schools would "continue our mission of transforming every part of our society".
"It is obviously true that good schools help produce an educated workforce," the Archbishop said.
"But the Christian vision is a far greater one. It is about setting a framework for children as they learn, which enables them to be confident when faced with the vast challenges that our rapidly changing culture brings to us."
The British Humanist Association's Pavan Dhaliwal said the organisation was "deeply concerned to hear it reported that the Church of England is to be able to take control of schools without a religious character, incorporate them into their Academy chains and appoint governors.
"While it is reported that there will be safeguards to stop religious discrimination in admissions, employment or teaching, it is hard to see how these safeguards would be great enough to offset the Church having control of a school’s governance.
"Already the Academies programme is allowing the Church to extend its influence over other schools in ways never previously possible and it is vital to social cohesion that these new avenues are not extended even further."
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chairman of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for admissions and recruitment in state schools to be free from religious discrimination, said: "Despite the positive aspects of church schools, those that select pupils on the basis of their faith are not only guilty of discrimination, but also help to fragment society.
"A tolerant pluralist society can only be created by having tolerant pluralist schools where children of all backgrounds grow up and interact together."If Michael Gove really wants church schools to recover the spirit which infused the Church's educational mission in Victorian times then he must make sure that church schools are not permitted to segregate and divide, but are made open and suitable for all in their respective local communities."