07/06/2013 08:29 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 06:12 BST

It's Time to Play Fair and End Religious Restrictions for Children at State-Funded Schools

If you were in a debate about the meaning of British identity or citizenship, one of the key values that would no doubt be highlighted is fairness - be it in one's personal dealings and 'fair play', or in a legal context and equity in public life.

So you would expect fairness to apply especially to the educational system - but instead of that principle being the core value which permeates the school and everything that children learn, it is absent in many state-funded schools which have a religious character, where the picture is not one of equality, but of division.

The unfairness starts right at the school gates in terms of who is admitted - those with the 'right faith' - and who is barred - those with the 'wrong faith' or no faith, even if they are local children.

The problem is that we are so used to it, that we fail to realise how offensive it is. Why should schools be the one part of the public sector that is legally able to discriminate in the case of religion ? Can you imagine the uproar if it was allowed anywhere else ?

The idea of no Catholics to be allowed in the army, no Jews to be social workers, no Muslims as doctors and no Sikhs as librarians is so unthinkable as to be laughable.

Yet it happens in state-funded schools, where Voluntary Aided schools can select 100% of pupils on grounds of their faith, with Free Schools able to do likewise for up to 50% of their intake. This is happening in the very institutions that we like to think are preparing young children for a better, fairer, more inclusive society. What sort of message are we giving them?

We find ourselves in this position because of the historic role that church schools played in providing education in this country in the middle ages and onwards when nobody else did. All credit to that role back then, but discrimination is surely no longer appropriate several centuries later.

It is time to admit that the system is morally flawed, and hence the start of the Fair Admissions Campaign to press for a fair admissions policy to be adopted in existing schools and to be made obligatory in all new schools. Schools can still have a particular ethos, but they should be open to all, so that children can attend schools closest to them if they so wish and not face an automatic bar.

It will also mean more children of different faiths and cultures meeting together in the classroom, Monday to Friday, learning about each other and inter-acting together - which is both the right path in principle and will provide a better society in practice.

These changes will take time to implement, but they can speeded up if the main political parties pledge to end discrimination in school admissions and increase inclusion. There is also nothing to stop organisations who control schools with discriminatory policies to modify them with immediate effect.

Meanwhile ordinary people - parents, teachers, members of faith-groups and anyone else - need to speak out in favour of fairness in entry requirements. Whether you are religious or secular, we can all sign up to the educational principle 'Thou shalt not discriminate between one child and another'. It should not just be a slogan, but a reality we make happen.