The Accord Coalition and Labour Teachers co-hosted a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Autumn Conference in Brighton on Sunday evening on the Fair Admissions Campaign, titled ‘Faith & segregation: The future of religious selection at state funded faith schools’.
Speakers at the event were Chair of Accord, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain; Dr Mary Bousted, the General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers; The Rev Stephen Terry, a former Chair of Governors at a state funded faith school and Rector of the Parish of Aldrington in Hove; and Barry Sheerman MP, who served as Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee from 2001 to 2010 and is a Lay Canon at Wakefield Cathedral. The meeting was chaired by Labour Teachers Co-editor John Taylor.
Rabbi Romain called for greater fairness in the admission policies to state funded faith schools. He noted that faith schools are the only part of the public sector allowed to choose who they served on religious grounds and argued that such selection would be unthinkable in other areas, such as in the provision of health care or regarding those who could be enrolled into different branches of the military, yet is permitted in schools, the civic institutions best placed to promote inclusive values in society.
Rabbi Romain observed that state funded faith schools are able to select pupils on faith grounds because they are exempt from the Equality Act, which he argued showed that such practices depart from society’s normal standards. He called on the Labour Party to commit in its manifesto for the next General Election to end faith discrimination in pupil admissions.
The Reverend Stephen Terry argued that society often incorrectly assumed that those with strong beliefs wanted to separate themselves from those that did not share them. However he believed the claim made by the Church of England’s Board of Education that its schools were for the whole community is sometimes different in reality and highlighted socio-economic segregation as a particular problem for Church schools.
He stated that wealthier parents are better positioned to use the education system to the advantage of their children and called upon Church schools to keep their ethos, but to adopt the same admission arrangements as community schools. He believed this would free Church schools from appearing elitist and socially divisive and would turn Anglican schools full circle, so that they return to their original mission of providing education for all those in need of it.
Dr Mary Bousted maintained that the practice of state funded schools in England and Wales selecting by faith was an international outlier. She cited a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that shows that England is one of only four out of thirty two OECD member countries assessed which allowed schools to operate in this way.
Barry Sherman MP spoke about his experience of witnessing state funded schools being required to follow the School Admissions Code and of former admission practices that had led to greater covert social selection taking place at faith schools. On top of facing challenges over admissions, Mr Sheerman also argued that the faith school sector needs take more seriously issues of equality of opportunity for people on the grounds of gender and sexual diversity.
A Party member from Bristol asked the panel how they should respond to people who say they have a right to send their children to a faith school. Rabbi Romain said European and Human Rights law did not require the state to provide parents with state funded faith schooling for their children and that pupils attending a community school can learn about religious and cultural beliefs in the home and places of worship.
Ann Cryer, who served as MP for Keighley between 1997 and 2010, told the panel she was disappointed that none of them spoke about lessons from single faith schooling in Northern Ireland. Dr Bousted said there were parallels between the ethnic and religious segregation between schools in Northern Ireland and places in northern England that suffered from race riots in 2001, such as Oldham. Dr Bousted called upon schools to ensure they guaranteed pupils with an education that taught about the beliefs of people different to both themselves and the school.