A cross-party group of MPs have this week tabled an Early Day Motion urging for the current limit restricting faith free schools from selecting no more than half of their pupils by faith to be extended to all other state funded schools, to help boost integration and community cohesion in society. The Early Day Motion seeks to draw the attention of other MPs to the issue.
Fair Admissions Campaign Steering Group member, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, said ‘Many faith free schools still exclude children on religious grounds and some admit a very homogeneous intake. However, the call for the 50% cap to be extended to other state funded faith schools is to be welcomed as a stepping stone towards greater reform, and highlights the growing consensus opposed to faith discrimination in society.’
The 50% faith free schools cap is, like the Early Day Motion, the subject of cross-party support. The cap was implemented by the coalition Government in May 2010 and has since remained as Government policy. The policy built on the approach of Labour’s last Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls, whereby most of the final tranches of faith based academy schools approved under his tenure were required to adhere to a 50% faith selection limit. Attempts to prevent faith schools operating exclusive admission arrangements have however come under brutal attack.
Despite calls for it to soften its position, the Catholic Church of England and Wales continues to boycott the free schools programme in protest at the 50% selection rule. This is despite two private Catholic schools having already reopened as free schools, most private Roman Catholic schools in England and Wales not operating a religiously selective admission policy, and most state funded school systems in the developed world with faith schools not permitting schools to select pupils by faith. This includes many schools that are Roman Catholic. In January a group of sixteen civil society groups signed an open letter calling for the existing 50% cap to remain in place.
The Early Day Motion states:
‘That this House acknowledges that mutual trust and understanding between people of different backgrounds grows when they are schooled together, which also benefits social cohesion in society at large; and therefore urges that the current policy where new faith free schools in England cannot select more than half their pupils on faith grounds is extended to all types of state-funded faith schools.‘
The academic evidence base has consistently shown a clear and positive contribution to social integration from ethnic mixing in schools.
A 2012 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that the UK was one of only a very few OECD member countries that permit religious selection at state schools (table 2.3 p15). Research by the Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) has reinforced this finding. The OECD identified that the Republic of Ireland, Estonia and Israel as having religiously selective state funded schools. In some Canadian provinces there are publicly funded Catholic schools that can refuse admission to non-Catholics before high school. The FAC are also aware that in Germany, a small number of private religious schools receive state funds and can religiously select. In the Netherlands, private faith schools that receive state funding can loosely require that pupils and parents support the mission/vision of the school. But we are not aware of any other countries. Countries with strong religious traditions, such as Italy, Spain and Poland, do not have religious discrimination in admissions to any state-funded schools.