State-funded faith schools may continue to select pupils that share their beliefs but atheists must be free to teach in any role other than RE, the Liberal Democrats say.
Calls for an outright ban on selecting pupils by faith were rejected by delegates at the party’s spring conference this weekend.
According to reports on the “impassioned” debate many Lib Dems, including frontbench figures, believe faith-based admissions can be socially divisive.
But others, including deputy leader Vince Cable, argued that they must be a feature of a tolerant society.
Also under the party’s plans, pupils who are “old enough to decide for themselves” could opt out of faith-based school assemblies, regardless of their parents’ wishes.
The Lib Dems’ new policy on the selection of teachers in faith schools puts the party at odds with current legislation.
Under existing employment equality laws, faith schools may preserve their religious ethos by selecting teaching staff who share the faith of the school.
The Lib Dems say only teachers responsible for religious instruction should be selected on religious grounds.
But supporters of faith schools say their success is down to their religious ethos – and that this ethos encompasses more than just religious instruction.
Religious leaders wrote a letter to The Guardian newspaper last week, cautioning against moves to undermine the religious ethos of faith schools.
Speaking last year Revd Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England’s Chief Education Officer, said: “Some seem to believe that the Christian ethos, which is so valued by parents, is like a sort of magic dust that is sprinkled on church schools simply by association.
“But it is, in fact, achieved through the hard work of staff and governors in building a learning community that is underpinned with Christian values.”
At the last general election the Conservatives accused the Lib Dems of wanting to ban all faith schools, but the party denied the accusation.
According to figures released by the Government in December, Britain’s 7,000 faith schools achieve better results than their non-religious counterparts.
In English tests, 79 per cent of 11-year-olds in non-faith schools meet the target level four grade compared to 84 per cent in Church of England schools.
In GCSE results for 16-year-olds, just 43 per cent of pupils in secular schools achieved five grades A*-C including maths and English but 51 per cent did in Church of England schools.