Faith Schools: Richmond Opts for Religious Discrimination

03/12/2012 11:21 GMT | Updated 01/02/2013 10:12 GMT

An extraordinary situation has developed in the London Borough of Richmond, in which a new school is needed. However, rather than follow clear government guidelines to invite bids for a free school - and accept one being proposed by a local community group that would be open to all local children - the Council has decided to ignore local parents and open a Voluntary Aided Catholic school that can limit 100% of its intake to Catholics.

It not only rides roughshod over local people's wishes - so much for the power of localism - but it also opts for a school that will judge children by their faith and discriminate against those with 'the wrong faith' or no faith.

The tragedy is that Richmond is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in the country, with both this and the previous government encouraging an increase in the number of faith schools.

I am a rabbi. I value faith. However, I am very worried about faith schools and the impact they are having both on the children who attend and on the type of society that will emerge as they grow up.

It would be unthinkable to discriminate over faith in any other public-funded institution. Can you imagine Catholic not allowed to be nurses, Jews banned from the RAF and Muslims from being librarians? Yet we allow schools exactly those powers. And although government ministers proudly tell of how they stand for justice and integrity, how can they condone discrimination at the heart of the educational system? And what message does that give the children?

Even more critical are the social consequences. Most faith schools may be set up with good intentions, but their effect is to segregate the children and create an educational apartheid system.

Some of the better schools attempt to teach about other faiths, but that is no substitute for children from different backgrounds sitting next to each other in class, playing in the break and walking home after school.

Let their religious education or belief system come from the home or after-school classes or church, synagogue, mosque and gurdwara at weekends, but not be used to divide the children throughout the week.

Moreover, faith schools do not just divide the children, but also the parents - who no longer meet outside the school gates, or at sports days and parents evenings. Thus they cut a huge swathe through the social life of local areas.

In this context, it is fascinating to see what is happening in Northern Ireland. The troubles there did not erupt because of faith schools, but there is equally no doubt that separate Catholic and Protestant schools helped perpetuate the divide between the two communities and reinforced the prejudices they had about each other.

Now, though, there is a surge in parents opting for Integrated Schools, which children from both faiths attend and see what they have in common. We should learn from the Province's solutions, not emulate its mistakes.

Britain is a multi-faith society and we do not wish it to become a multi-fractious one. Growing up together and establishing relationships is key to promoting social cohesion. Why does Richmond Council object to that and why is it opting for discrimination over inclusivity?