Britain Seeks Faith-School Quotas

Britain seeks faith-school quotas
By Al Webb
October 19, 2006

LONDON — The British government, in a move aimed at reducing religious and racial tensions, wants to force all new faith-based schools in the country to make at least 25 percent of their classroom places available to “non-believing” children and pupils of other religions, a leaked Cabinet letter says.

The Church of England announced earlier this month that it will set aside one-fourth of all places in its new schools for students outside the Anglican faith. The government's plan would force Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim institutions to do likewise, and that is likely to provoke resistance in some quarters.

Details of the proposal were contained in a letter from Education Secretary Alan Johnson to fellow ministers in Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet and leaked to London's Sunday Times newspaper and the British Broadcasting Corp.

Mr. Johnson's letter read: “There is a case for giving local authorities a new discretionary power to require new faith schools to admit up to 25 percent of pupils from outside their faith group, as this would enable them to take account of local circumstances.”

Authorities are concerned about a tendency of immigrants, many of them Muslims from South Asia, to cluster in tightly knit communities with their own schools and institutions, frustrating efforts to integrate them into the larger community.

More traditional communities of Catholics, Protestants and Jews also have been turning increasingly to faith-based schools, where educational standards are higher than in state schools.

Eighty years ago, only one in 10 Jews attended faith schools, while today the figure is more than 50 percent.

The Church of England, meanwhile, reports a sharp rise in the number of church schools. In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where pupils of Bangladeshi origin fill 90 percent of the seats in state schools, Bangladeshis represent only 3 percent of the enrollment in Church of England schools.

Figures show that more than 6,700 state-supported schools in England — about one-third of the total — have religious connections. These include 4,646 Church of England schools, 2,041 Roman Catholic, 37 Jewish, seven Muslim and two Sikh.

It was not clear how many, for example, Anglican pupils would want to attend a Muslim school, or how many Muslims would be prepared to attend a Jewish or Roman Catholic school.

“It is not a quota per se,” the Times quoted one source close to the education secretary as saying, “only obviously if there is a demand for places. But if there is a demand, [the local education authorities] will have the power to insist on up to 25 percent of places being given up to non-faith pupils.”

Mr. Johnson is expected to announce the plan this week when the Blair administration's education bill returns to the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain's Parliament, but the proposal faces an uncertain future.

Idris Mears of the Association of Muslim Schools told the Times that imposing such an order on minority faiths was socially unjust.

“Most Muslim schools already have this provision in their regulations, but to impose it on us without increasing our numbers substantially doesn't seem fair,” he said.

Shahid Malik, a Muslim member of the British Parliament from Mr. Blair's ruling Labor Party, was more hopeful.

“This is part of a strategy which says we can't ignore segregation any longer,” he said. “We have to start working to make people have a greater understanding of one another.”