Faith schools instill virtues of hard work, discipline and a sense of social responsibility, the Chief Rabbi has said.
Writing in The Times, Jonathan Sacks rebuffed claims that faith schools are divisive.
And he dismissed the idea that faith is a barrier to academic achievement.
Lord Sacks said there is a paradox that Europe is the planet’s “most secular continent” and yet “faith schools are the growth industry of our time”.
He commented: “More and more people want them, and are prepared to go to great lengths to get their children admitted.
“This applies to parents who are not themselves religious. What is going on?”
His comments have sparked a debate in The Times with one letter to the newspaper claiming faith schools only succeed because they choose easy-to-teach children.
That claim was countered by the Anglican Church in Wales’ Education Adviser who said children were taken from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Lord Sacks said that faith schools tend to have academic success above the average.
But, Lord Sacks commented, “why should this be so, if faith inhibits critical thought and discourages independence of mind? This is a question worth serious reflection.
“My tentative suggestion is that faith schools tend to have a strong ethos that emphasises respect for authority, the virtues of hard work, discipline and a sense of duty, a commitment to high ideals, a willingness to learn, a sense of social responsibility, a preference for earned self-respect rather than unearned self-esteem, and the idea of an objective moral order that transcends subjective personal preference.”
He concluded: “One way or another, the critics should reflect on this simple question. If faith schools are so bad, why do thoughtful, often secular, parents think they are so good?”
Following Lord Sacks’ article a reader claimed faith schools’ success was only because they select predominantly “highly motivated children of wealthy parents” and not “poor, unmotivated or difficult students who would require more attention”.
Not so, Revd Edwin Counsell, Education Adviser to the Church in Wales said.
He commented: “Far from selecting high-attaining, low-maintenance pupils, evidence shows that children are drawn from across the range of ability, economic background, culture and faith.”
Faith schools dominated a league table of England’s best primary schools, according to figures revealed at the end of last year.
Almost two-thirds of the 268 schools which achieved “perfect” SATs results this summer were Anglican, Roman Catholic or Jewish schools.
Their prominence comes despite the fact that nationally they account for only one-third of the total number of schools.