Schools will be allowed to close for Islamic holidays in order to improve attendance rates, under new plans.
Many Muslim children are currently taken out of lessons to celebrate religious festivals such as Eid.
In an attempt to lower levels of classroom absences, Manchester City Council is considering allowing schools attended by large numbers of non-Christians to close on these holy days.
Education departments in some parts of east London, where the majority of pupils are Muslim, already tell schools to close on two days for Eid.
But critics point out that Christianity remains the state religion in England, and claim that communities risk becoming more segregated if different groups are allowed to change the school calendar.
Douglas Murray, director of the Centre for Social Cohesion think tank, said: “Either people are British and go to British schools and have a particular holiday system, or we decide to carve the country up into areas that are Muslim and non-Muslim, and I think that’s what this does.
“To have a quota above which schools are designated as Muslims seems to be, putting it at its mildest, an unhelpful way to bring cohesion to Britain.
“I don’t see why, under pressure, education departments should alter the way in which schools are run.”
English schools currently close for the main Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter, but parents are allowed to take children out of lessons to celebrate other religious festivals.
This means that teachers can be faced with half-empty classrooms in areas with high proportions of non-Christian children, adding to official absence rates.
Manchester has the third worst school attendance rates in the country with a total of 8.2 per cent of lesson time lost. Almost one in 10 of all missed days in the city’s schools is put down to religious observance.
In an attempt to improve the figures, it has been suggested that schools where more than 40 per cent of pupils are likely to take a day off for religious reasons should be allowed to consider closing.
Headteachers will be encouraged to hold teacher training days on the three days permitted for non-Christian festivals, while the traditional school holidays will remain unchanged.
John Edwards, the council’s deputy director of children’s services, told the Manchester Evening News: “We encourage schools to work with local faith groups to develop guidance and co-ordinate the times taken for religious observance.
“It is about asking schools to plan ahead and to try not to put themselves in the position where they could be asked to allow additional absence.”
Some schools in London where the majority of pupils are Hindu or Sikh already close on significant days in the calendars of those faiths, while Bradford and Tower Hamlets recommends that its schools close on the Islamic feasts of Eid al-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha, and hold teacher training days instead.
The local authority states: “Tower Hamlets policy is that schools should close for Eid (these dates have been advised by the East London Mosque).
“It is important to ensure that all Muslim pupils and staff can participate in religious observance without being absent from school. This is consistent with the council’s attendance policy that “every day matters”.
“In 2005/6 the overall attendance figures for Tower Hamlets were adversely affected by 0.5 per cent by schools that remained open for Eid.”
A child is seen among Muslims attending prayers during Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan