Archbishop of Canterbury defends faith schools

London, England - Faith schools are not divisive and do not just take children from mostly wealthy middle class families, the Archbishop of Canterbury will say on Tuesday.

Rowan Williams will argue that faith schools provided the "broadest possible access to ideas", educating children from a wide-range of backgrounds and often from some of the country's poorest areas.

His comments, to be made in a speech to the National Church Schools Conference, are a response to accusations that church schools offered wealthier families an alternative to private education.

They also come as MPs prepare to vote on the government's education bill which will allow schools to convert to Trust status, free of local authority control and backed by outside organisations such as faith groups.

"The often-forgotten fact that church schools are the main educational presences in some of our most deprived communities means that it simply cannot be said that these schools somehow have a policy of sanitising or segregating," Williams will say.

His speech, which will also call for church schools to have a nationwide admissions criteria, will argue that faith schools helped break down prejudices.

"Church schools are among the relatively few public institutions generally regarded with trust by minority religious communities," Williams will say.

"And it is this ... which gives the lie to any idea that faith schools are automatically nurseries of bigotry.

"An education system which conveys some sense of what religious motivation is actually like is more helpful in avoiding communal suspicion or violence ... than one which rigorously refuses to engage with any religious practice on its own terms."

However, the National Secular Society (NSS) called the Archbishop's comments "disingenuous and self-serving".

Keith Porteous Wood, the society's executive director, said the whole point of faith schools was to educate youngsters that there was one true faith or denomination.

Last year David Bell, then head of the education standards watchdog Ofsted, who said he thought faith schools -- which make up around one third of the country's 22,000 schools -- were failing to promote an understanding of other religions.

In February leaders of the Church of England, Catholic, Methodist, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist faiths signed an agreement vowing to teach pupils about other religions as well as their own in an effort to broaden understanding.

But the NSS said more faith schools would increase tensions between religions.

"Some preach that non-followers will face eternal damnation, torment and burning in hell. Nothing could be more divisive," Wood said.

"The most vociferous proponents of keeping or expanding faith schools are those with a vested interest."