The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has said he backs faith schools as long as they do not bring about “segregation”.
Mr Clegg, whose son started at the heavily oversubscribed London Oratory school last year, told The Tablet that he protects the right of faiths to establish schools and praised Catholic schools for being “engines of integration”.
His party, the Liberal Democrats, pledged in their 2010 manifesto, to prevent faith schools from selecting children on the basis of their religion.
As a consequence, the chairman of the Catholic Education Service, Malcolm McMahon, said: “Catholics should give it very serious consideration before they vote Liberal Democrat.”
Asked if he had changed his mind over the issue since sending his son to a Catholic school, Mr Clegg, who is an atheist married to a Catholic, said: “I’ve always protected the right of faiths to establish faith schools.”
But he said that the Government should intervene when faith schools fail to encourage integration. “In my own view the crucial thing for faith schools, and I think all the best faith schools do this, is to make sure they act as engines of integration and not silos of segregation,” he said.
“Where they don’t, I do think it’s legitimate to ask faith schools to reach out to other faiths and to other parts of the community.”
The London Oratory has recently reviewed its own admissions procedures after the Office of the School’s Adjudicator said it could not give priority to children whose parents were involved in extra service in the Church, for example by singing in the choir or flower-arranging, following a complaint by the British Humanist Society.
But in the latest development in an ongoing row over the school’s admissions, the Oratory last month temporarily won back the right to select students based on parents’ extra service.
Mr Clegg was speaking after a discussion with sixth-form students about university finance at Bishop Challoner Catholic College in East London.