Fair Admissions Campaign responds to Mark Hoban MP’s call for even more religious discrimination in admissions

Mark Hoban, Conservative MP for Fareham, yesterday sponsored a short debate (from 11:00 am) in the House of Commons in which he objected to the 50 per cent limit on religious selection imposed on faith Free Schools. Mr Hoban also wrote a blog on the matter for ConservativeHome. Responding to Mr Hoban, education minister Liz Truss MP said that ‘Faith Free Schools must be open and welcoming to the communities around them… Where the Government funds new faith provision, it is right that a proportion of places are available to the whole community, including those of other faiths and none.’

We at the Fair Admissions Campaign were troubled by a number of assertions in Mr Hoban’s blog, which we will quote from and respond to below:

You can imagine how hard it is for me when this Government’s policy actually limits diversity where there is the demand for a new Catholic school.  The Coalition Agreement has killed off the prospect of new Catholic academies and free schools. The Agreement says: “We will ensure that all new Academies follow an inclusive admissions policy. We will work with faith groups to enable more faith schools and facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible.” This has been translated into a cap on the proportion of places that can be allocated to children of the faith behind the academy or free school. This cap kicks in when the school is oversubscribed, and it could lead to a Catholic school turning away Catholic parents and pupils.

Actually there are already two Catholic Free Schools – St Michael’s Catholic Secondary School in Cornwall and St Anthony’s School in Gloucestershire. Both were private schools before becoming state schools – it is interesting to note that the Church is less concerned about faith-based admissions requirements when the schools concerned are not state funded. A third Catholic Free School, Trinity Academy in Lambeth, is backed by the Government to open this September, and is proposing to become the first Catholic school with fully open admissions.

But if something has ‘killed off the prospect of new Catholic academies and free schools’, it is the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to open Free Schools with a 50 per cent limit on religious selection. No other organisation has refused to partake in the Free Schools programme because of this requirement.

Socially and ethnically, Catholic schools are very inclusive – they have a higher proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities and deprived areas than the average school, and nor are these exclusively Catholic.  Three in every ten children in Catholic schools are non-Catholics.

In the debate Mr Hoban elaborated on this point slightly, saying that ‘17.3% of children in Catholic secondary schools live in deprived areas, compared with 12.2% nationally.’ This is a statistic sourced from the Catholic Education Service’s annual census, where it compares Catholic and non-Catholic schools in terms of the proportion of pupils living in the 10% most deprived areas, according to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI).

This claim fails to consider is that different types of school are in different areas, and Catholic schools in particular are more likely to be in deprived areas. Indeed, if you look at the schools themselves, then you find that 13.3% of Catholic schools are located in the 10% most deprived areas, compared to 8.7% of all other schools.

However, IDACI doesn’t take account of how deprived the pupils’ families are – just how deprived their local areas are. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s map gets around this by instead looking at the number of pupils at each school that are eligible for free school meals, and compares that to the number in the schools’ local area. It finds that Catholic schools take 28 per cent fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected, given the areas they are located in. This remains true regardless of whether schools are compared to their immediate vicinity, to across their local authorities, or including neighbouring local authorities.

As for the point that three out of ten pupils at Catholic schools are not Catholic – if this is something to be celebrated, why not support making some degree of inclusivity a requirement for all schools?

No other type of school is required to apply a quota to achieve inclusivity. We haven’t set quotas by social class, gender or ethnicity. Why single out faith?

First of all it is worth clarifying that the 50 per cent cap is not a quota system, nor does the Fair Admissions Campaign advocate a quota system. A quota system is where a certain proportion of places are required to go to those of a different faith. All the cap requires is that 50 per cent of places are selected without consideration of faith. A number of these places are likely to go to Catholics, given the fact that Catholics would likely make up a significant proportion of the local population, and are more likely to apply to the school.

With regard to social class and ethnicity, no state school directly discriminates on the basis of either of these – indeed, to do so would be unlawful. Conversely, thanks to a specific exemption in the Equality Act, faith-based discrimination is widespread, much more so than single-sex schools. While we don’t take a position on single-sex education, we would argue against faith-based admissions policies in particular because of the serious harms they cause in terms of religious, ethnic and socio-economic segregation, and the negative effects they have on community cohesion and psychological well-being.

Why is the Catholic Church concerned about the cap? It is hard to maintain a shared set of values and ethos if half the pupils don’t subscribe to beliefs and practices of the Catholic faith. That is not to say these schools must be exclusively Catholic, but there is a point when the dilution of its Catholicity means a school loses its ethos.

There are many, many Church of England schools that do not religiously discriminate, while still being able to maintain their religious ethos. The London Diocesan Board for Schools, which is encouraging inclusive admissions in its schools, rejects claims that such openness dilutes the schools’ ethos: ‘Their Christian values are written through them like a stick of rock’.

Let me give an example of where that has happened.

In Oxford, parents saw no discernible difference between a joint Catholic/ Church of England school and other local schools – viewing them all as ‘non-Catholic’ schools. Parents voted with their feet, sending their children to other local schools. So, instead, the Catholic Church founded a distinctive Catholic school, St Gregory’s, which is successful and over-subscribed.  The cap thus threatens the ethos which is part of the school’s mission in the first place.  The faith-based admission cap does provide a disincentive to the Catholic Church to set up faith schools.

There are many joint Catholic/Church of England schools that are heavily oversubscribed. The example given is from over a decade ago. That makes it hard to assess the reasons for its closure. But a TES report suggests that despite being praised by Ofsted, the school was closed as part of a reorganisation of Oxford’s schools in order to eliminate middle schools.

Do other faith groups share this concern? If a faith establishes a school that is simply not attractive to parents and children of other or no faith then the cap does not apply. Furthermore, some faiths might be happy to see that dilutive effect work, but the experience of the Catholic Church has not been good. We would have a richer and more diverse set of free schools and academies if the cap were removed. It would give more parents the chance to give their children the education rooted in values that they support – a very Conservative idea.

No other religious group has refused to take part in the free school programme due to the 50 per cent cap. The only other groups to protest the cap were some Jewish groups early on in the programme, but those protests have since stopped.

It is hard to know how it can be said that the experience of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has not been good when it has not experimented with the matter at all. In Scotland there are 370 denominational schools, 366 of which are Catholic. Many of them do not religiously discriminate in admissions, and yet no-one complains about those schools having a diluted ethos.

Finally, it seems perfectly reasonable that a condition of public funding for a school is that it aims to serve its whole local community.


For further information or comment please contact Paul Pettinger on 020 7324 3071 or email info@fairadmissions.org.uk.

Read Mark Hoban’s blog: http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2014/02/from-markhobanmp-the-cap-on-admissions-to-faith-schools-should-be-scrapped.html

Watch the debate: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14724

Read the transcript: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140204/halltext/140204h0001.htm#14020454000002

The Fair Admissions Campaign 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.