Accord: we want to broaden education
Rabbi Jonathan Romain was this week at pains to point out that the new Accord campaign, which he chairs, is not against the existence of faith schools.
Its aim was to bring religious schools under greater state control, he explained at the new group's London launch on Monday.
"Faith schools are here to stay," he said. "Parents do have a freedom of choice. We want to recognise that right to choose. What we are particularly concerned with is the quality of those faith schools... and some of the malpractices, or less than positive practices, that are allowed to go unregulated."
Accord wants to abolish the right of faith schools to choose their pupils or staff on the basis of faith. It also believes they should teach a national religious education curriculum covering faiths other than their own and offer "inclusive" assemblies rather than compulsory acts of worship.
Last week, Accord supporter Rabbi David Goldberg said that "faith schools... do not help integration".
Faith schools are currently exempt from new religious-discrimination law by being permitted to give priority to children - and in many cases, staff - from their own faith community. But Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP, welcoming the launch of Accord, said that the joint parliamentary committee on human rights believes that some of these exemptions contradict the European Convention on Human Rights.
"This campaign does not seek to prevent parents choosing to apply to faith school if they wish, but it would rightly prevents such schools - funded as they are by the state - from discriminating against teachers and pupils on religious grounds," he told the JC.
Broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis declared at the launch: "I hope we can avoid religious ghettos in the future and give our kids a broad multicultural education."
The new campaign brought an instant defence of the current faith-school system from a coalition of religious groups, the Faith School Providers' Group, which includes the Board of Deputies.
But its claim that all faiths schools were signed up to a shared vision promoting community cohesion was greeted with scepticism by Rabbi Romain.
"It's fine in theory," he said, "but is it actually happening in practice? It's a bit like the Russians saying, ‘We've withdrawn from Georgia.'"
Who's who in the campaign to change faith education:
Accord is a coalition of various groups which include a prominent educational union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers; the British Humanist Association, which was recently involved in the unsuccessful court case challenging JFS's entry policy; Ekklesia, a think tank exploring the role of religion in public life; Women against Fundamentalism, and others.
Apart from Rabbi Jonathan Romain, its chair, and Rabbi David Goldberg, emeritus rabbi of London's Liberal Jewish Synagogue, its other listed Jewish supporters are writer Clare Rayner and actress Miriam Karlin.
Supporters range from liberal Christian theologian Theo Hobson to ardent secularist Polly Toynbee, author Philip Pullman and Professors A C Grayling, Steve Jones, Colin Blakemore and Bernard Crick, as well as ex-Labour education minister Baroness Blackstone.