70 Rabbis call for inclusive school admissions in challenge to Chief Rabbi

Rabbis from across the UK have written an open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening opposing calls made by the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis for new ‘faith’ schools to be allowed to select all of their places on the basis of religion. The Chief Rabbi has reportedly been putting significant pressure on the Government to drop the requirement that all new Free Schools must leave 50% of their places open to children in the local community, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs. The group of Rabbis who have written to the Education Secretary, however, say that the requirement benefits both ‘the children concerned and the society into which they will emerge and help shape’. The Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC), which brings together a wide range of groups opposed to religious discrimination in school admissions, has welcomed the letter.

Currently, new Free Schools are only able to select up to half of their places with reference to religion, a policy which in the words of the Department for Education (DfE) is designed to ‘help tackle segregation and ensure young people will experience the diversity of religious beliefs that make up modern Britain’. The Chief Rabbi has publicly disagreed with this approach, however, and only this month a spokesperson for his office stated that Jewish schools should provide ‘a completely immersive Jewish environment – something which is far more challenging if the 50 per cent rule associated with free schools is applied’.

The letter, signed by 68 Rabbis, was initiated by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue, who is also chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education which campaigns for ‘faith’ school reform. Contrary to comments made by the Chief Rabbi, it states that ‘Jewish values can happily co-exist with social cohesion’ in education, and that an open, non-discriminatory admissions policy achieves a ‘balance’ so that children can gain ‘both a sense of religious roots and openness to others’.

The Office of the Chief Rabbi is not the only religious organisation to have been lobbying the Government to drop the 50% cap. The Catholic Education Service has long called for such a move, with Director Paul Barber stating earlier this year that the Catholic Church would continue to ‘ask the Government to remove the barriers’ which currently left them ‘unable to engage’ in the Free Schools programme.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain said, ‘The 50% cap communicates that state funded schools should seek to be shared spaces and shows faith schools do not need to discriminate to maintain their religious ethos. To remove it risks sending a terrible signal affirming that religious identities and beliefs must be in antagonism with one another. As the cap has operated with ease since 2010, it should be extended to all state funded faith schools, to help better promote integration and harmony.’

Faith Schools Campaigner at the British Humanist Association (BHA) Jay Harman commented, ‘The amount of pressure that the “religious lobby” has been putting on Government to allow their schools to be more discriminatory and more divisive is both inappropriate and entirely out-of-step with efforts to improve integration in the education system. What this letter shows is that the position of these groups is also entirely out-of-step with the majority of religious people, who evidently believe that social cohesion and mutual understanding are best served by schools which are inclusive, open, and diverse. We hope the new Education Secretary will pay close attention to the views expressed in this letter, and in addition to keeping the 50% rule will consider going further by introducing requirements on schools to be even more inclusive in their admission arrangements.’

Notes

For further comment of information please contact the Fair Admissions Campaign on info@fairadmissions.uk or 020 7324 3078.

Read the FAC’s previous news item ‘Cross-party group of MPs call for further limits to faith school’s ability to religiously discriminate in admissions’: http://fairadmissions.org.uk/cross-party-group-of-mps-call-for-further-limits-to-faith-schools-ability-to-religiously-discriminate-in-admissions/

The FAC wants all state-funded schools in England and Wales to be open equally to all children, without regard to religion or belief. The Campaign is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations. We hold diverse views on whether or not the state should fund faith schools. But we all believe that faith-based discrimination in access to schools that are funded by the taxpayer is wrong in principle and a cause of religious, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation, all of which are harmful to community cohesion. It is time it stopped.

Supporters of the campaign include the Accord Coalition, the British Humanist Association, Professor Ted Cantle and the iCoCo Foundation, the Association of Teachers and LecturersBritish Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Campaign for State Education, the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the Hindu Academy, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrat Education AssociationLiberal Youth, the Local Schools NetworkRichmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, the Runnymede Trust, the Socialist Educational Association, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.