Faith schools 'are being subjected to a Government witch-hunt to win favour with the left'

Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls complained that faith schools were breaking admission rules and letting pupils in 'through the back door'

'Witch-hunt': A new report claims  Ed Balls and Gordon Brown are 'bashing' faith schools to curry favour with Left-wingers in the Labour party

Faith schools are being subjected to a vicious Government witch-hunt which is undermining their independence, a report claims today.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Children's Secretary Ed Balls are 'bashing' the schools to curry favour with Left-wingers in the Labour party, according to a report by the Centre for Policy Studies.

The think-tank says the ministerial assault is creating a climate of fear, damaging parental choice and threatening the future of this form of education.

This is despite the fact that faith schools have an excellent academic record, serve their local communities and are a 'force for the good'.

They account for a third of all primary schools yet make up two-thirds of the top 209 primaries in the country.

The CPS report, In Bad Faith, comes as faith schools are subjected to mounting pressure from the Government.

Earlier this year, Mr Balls claimed that dozens of schools - almost all of them Church of England, Roman Catholic or Jewish - were breaking admissions rules and selecting pupils by the back door. He said some were charging parents upfront fees running into hundreds of pounds.

However, Tories immediately accused him of trying to win over Labour party members hostile to the country's 6,850 faith schools and to bolster his position for a future leadership bid.

His attack also brought accusations of attempting to 'bury bad news' about the numbers of parents who had not gained the secondary school of their choice.

A Government- commissioned report on faith schools by chief schools adjudicator Sir Philip Hunter is due shortly - sparking fears of a clampdown on their freedoms. Christina Odone, author of In Bad Faith and a former editor of the Catholic Herald, claims that the 'witch-hunt is on', from a Government that is obsessed with 'phoney egalitarianism and control freakery'.

It is 'aligning itself with the strident secularist lobby to threaten the future of faith schools in Britain'.

She warns that the Government intends to remove their remaining autonomy, 'making them mere cogs in the vast and dysfunctional state educational bureacracy'. It means that a 'rich legacy is being betrayed'.

She continues: 'Gordon Brown knows that for the "Old Labour" rump of the party, equally committed to secularism and comprehensive education, faith schools are anathema.

'Tony Blair and "New Labour" were ready to ignore this constituency, but Gordon Brown cannot afford to. Nor can his ambitious Secretary of State.'

She adds: 'Today's class warriors are bent on portraying faith schools as boutique education, the exclusive preserves of pushy middle-class parents.

'Yet for low-income parents, these schools represent the only way their children can be taught the faith that their family holds dear. Would a Government that prides itself on its egalitarian instincts block opportunities for the poor while securing them exclusively for the rich?' She argues that faith schools are inclusive and offer a good education to children who would otherwise miss out.

She says they benefit Muslim girls beacuse they give their parents the confidence to keep them in school for longer and raise the chances of going on to higher education.

They give poor parents a chance of a quality education that would otherwise be available only to middle-class parents who know how to take advantage of the state system.

The Government hit back last night, condemning the report. Schools Minister Jim Knight said: 'Faith-based schools are assured a secure future in the state system under this Government, with parents from all backgrounds being offered an equal chance to get their children into these popular schools.

'To suggest otherwise is nonsense and a distortion of the truth.'