I've faith in a school environment that's free from religious division

MULTI-culturalism, which was once so fundamental to the approaches of the UK's political and chattering classes, is on the way out. Though a replacement philosophy has not been fully worked out, it is likely to be along the lines of every citizen, regardless of ethnic origin, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's.

In other words, each resident must respect the laws of the land, while retaining the right to campaign by democratic means for changes in those laws. Equally, each citizen has a right under the European Convention on Human Rights to profess and practise a religion of his or her choice. What this amounts to, in my view, is a guaranteed separation of religious belief - essentially a private matter - from the affairs of the secular state. We may regret this change has come about not as the outcome of a philosophical debate but because of a fear of radical Islam. Nevertheless, the change should be welcomed and public policy should recognise what is in effect a new clause in our unwritten constitution.

I am disappointed, therefore, that New Labour, in promulgating this new approach, has not recognised the full extent of its implications for state-funded faith schools. Successive English education ministers, whose personal beliefs have ranged from Roman Catholic to atheist, have done nothing to rein in the growth of faith sector schools. About a third of all public schools in England are faith schools and some of Tony Blair's new city academies are partly funded by faith groups.

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In Scotland, the situation is different but no less contentious. We have a smaller and less diverse faith school system but sectarianism is recognised as being a bigger problem. It raises its ugly head at regular intervals. In recent days we have seen the Scottish Football Association preparing to penalise football clubs for not eliminating sectarianism among their supporters, while Cardinal Keith O'Brien says the problem goes beyond football and is endemic in society. However, the cardinal denies the Roman Catholic school system has played any part in creating the scenario.

Since 1918, Catholic primary and secondary schools have been part of the state system. Episcopal schools, which were swept into the state system along with the Catholic schools, have progressively lost their identity, to the point where it is difficult to name even one such school. There is one Jewish state primary, but no Muslim state schools, though there are some Glasgow schools where the majority of pupils are from Muslim families.

The largest Christian group in Scotland - Presbyterians - have no faith schools. And though the Free Church of Scotland - with 12,000 adherents - has asked for them, this is most unlikely to come about. The Church of Scotland has debated the matter at its General Assembly, but has rejected the idea by large majorities because it sees itself as rooted in the generality of Scottish society and seeks to influence the whole of this society rather than just its adherents.

The Catholic sector is in long-term decline and has a large percentage of non-Catholic teachers. Labour is in favour of the integration of denominational schools, but fears the electoral consequences of pursuing such a policy, though the fear may be exaggerated. There is, however, a great resistance in the party to setting up Muslim state schools. Such selective resistance cannot be legally or philosophically justified. Ewan Aitken, leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, argues Roman Catholic schools are already there so should continue, but no other religious groups should have state schools: a position that owes more to pragmatism than principle.

Denominational education is fundamentally opposed to one of the principles under-lying education in a democracy - that there is a distinction between the public good, as expressed in a broad educational curriculum, and private values as contained in religious belief. In an integrated society, religious beliefs should be left at the school door, though belief should be examined philosophically in religious, moral and philosophical studies.

This approach is encouraged by a decision of the House of Lords, that pupils over the age of 16 in all schools now have the right - under the Human Rights Act - to boycott religious assemblies. This ruling followed a petition by pupils of St Luke's RC College at Bexley, in Kent, who had been subjected, in assembly, to gruesome illustrated lectures by an American anti-abortionist. Since the Human Rights Act is UK legislation, this ruling applies to all schools in Scotland.

What is new is the impact in the UK of Muslim fundamentalism and the subsequent rejection of multiculturalism as a guiding principle. It would be ironic, in a way, if this led to our education system becoming fully secular, but this is now the likely outcome. If we balk at having state-funded Muslim schools; if we think such schools would only reinforce the ghettoisation of Muslim communities; if we note the most integrated immigrant communities are the ones who have not asked for separate schools; then we may well conclude the way forward is to phase out all faith schools and provide for the legitimate needs of minority ethnic groups within the system.

We already have a good model for this in how the needs of the Jewish community of East Renfrewshire are met by the local non-denominational schools. They share in all the educational and social life of the schools, but are released early on Fridays to meet the needs of the Shabbat. Are they integrated into the local community? Yes. Are they discriminated against? No. Are they falling away from the faith? Much less so than local Roman Catholics. Would they be better enrolled in Jewish denominational schools? Definitely not.

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Our newer ethnic minorities should look at the integration of the Jews, the Chinese, the Indians and our post-war Polish immigrants and draw the obvious conclusions. So should representatives at Westminster, Holyrood and in councils.

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