We’ve already set out ten reasons why we think this is an issue and further FAQs follow below. Something you think we’ve missed? Get in touch and let us know!

Questions about religious selection

What do the public think about faith-based selection?

A November 2012 survey by ComRes for the Accord Coalition found 73% of British adults thought that ‘state funded schools should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’. Only 18% thought that they should.

2011 research into the views of 5 to 11 year olds by the Children’s Commissioner found that ‘… only one in five (20%) children and young people felt that religion (a proxy for faith schools) should be used in admissions criteria and nearly two-thirds (64%) felt religion should not be part of school’s selection criteria (and 16% were unsure). The focus group participants also tended to hold strong views against selection on religious grounds, as; “you shouldn’t be judged on your religion, and everyone should be treated equally” (girl, Year 8). Various participants across the different focus groups described faith-based selection as “racist” and another described it as “discrimination” (girl, Year 10)’.

A September 2010 survey by YouGov for ITV gave British adults a list of eleven factors that ‘were important to you when choosing which school to send your child/children to’, and asked them to pick their top three. Only 9% of parents picked ‘religion of the school’.

How come religiously selective schools often end up selecting according to parents' social class and income?

Parents generally want the highest quality education possible for their children. So if one school in a neighbourhood happens to have better results than another, they will prefer it for their sons and daughters.

If the better school is not selective in its admissions, there will be little parents can do to influence whether their child is given a place or not. But if the better school is religiously selective (as will happen to be the case about half of the time), then ambitious parents can try to maximise their chances. For instance they may start going to church or sending their children to Sunday school – not because they are religious but because they want their children to go to the best performing school which just happens to be a religiously selective school.

But some parents are more able than others to make the system work for them – for example, those with free time and sufficient means. Others, with heavy work commitments (for example, a single mother with two or three jobs) will have no time to attend Church on a Sunday.

As a result, the religious selection process is automatically skewed against children from less affluent backgrounds because their parents are typically less able to play the system. As a consequence of the skewed intake, the religiously selective school gets even better exam results, attracts better teachers and becomes even more desirable, while nearby schools that do not select enter into a similar, but downward spiral.

Everyone then suffers: not just the more disadvantaged children and parents but also parents who feel they are letting their children down if they do not feign religious observance to keep up with everyone else.

Does this theory match reality? Well, surveys show that very few parents consider the religion of a school to be important when they are deciding what schools they prefer for their children. Easily the most important thing is, of course, performance.

We also have a wide range of evidence (such as eligibility for free school meals, academic ability of pupils starting at schools, and value added indicators) showing that admissions to religiously selective schools cause socio-economic bias.

Do religiously selective schools deliberately select according to parents’ social class and income?

Until recently religious schools were able to select deliberately by socio-economic factors (such as class and income): they could require parents to financially support or volunteer for the Church, or require pupils to attend an interview at which their social class would be apparent. Now this is not allowed and there is less evidence that deliberate socio-economic selection is occurring. The latest School Admissions Code in England explicitly bans schools from requiring parents to give financial or practical support to a church or other religious body. And the Education and Inspections Act 2006 also bans interviews. The only way such deliberate selection can now take place is through priests using their discretion to decide whose references they will sign off.

But even where there is no deliberate social selection by the school, it is clear that socio-economic selection still often occurs as a consequence of the religious selection. And this should be worrying enough for us to do something about it.

If faith schools have inclusive admissions policies, then will parents be able to educate children in line with their own faith?

First of all it is worth pointing out that many Church of England and Methodist schools already do not religiously select their pupils, and yet we have not heard any complaints of this issue arising.

Beyond that, some parents prefer faith schools because the education they provide lines up with their own beliefs, and it might turn out to be that a few of these parents are not able to get their children into religiously selective schools if they open up their admissions policies. However, it is not true that these parents will as a consequence be unable to educate their children in their own faith. The Human Rights Act guarantees that the state must ensure children are not indoctrinated by schools, and schools without a religious character teach about religion and belief from a neutral point of view (with the exception of Collective Worship, which is mainly Christian). In addition, there is nothing to stop parents educating children in their faith outside of school hours, at home or by taking them to Sunday school, as many do already.

In 2010, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote that an ‘argument is that discrimination is necessary in order to maintain the distinctiveness of religious schools and so maintain the plurality of provision… This argument is weakened by evidence which suggests, in relation to Church of England schools, that plurality of provision has been preserved even where those schools do not have faith-based admissions criteria. It carries more weight in relation to other faith schools, however. In consequence, the exemption permitting faith schools to discriminate in their admissions on grounds of religion or belief may be overdrawn’.

Catholics comprise 10% of the population and are evenly spread across England and Wales, hence their children typically need to travel further to get to their nearest Catholic school than their nearest school with no religious character. Isn’t faith-based selection therefore essential to ensure that Catholics have a chance to access Catholic schools?

By definition Catholic schools are more attractive to Catholic parents than non-Catholics, and so even with no religious admissions policies there will be some degree of self-sorting. With that said, it is true that sometimes it would be the case that inclusive admissions stops Catholics from being able to gain access to a Catholic school.

However, to this we have two responses. First of all, inclusive admissions would mean that parents of all faiths and none will have the opportunity to send their children to their nearest Catholic school if that is what they want. This will stop the discrimination of children being turned away from their local fully state-funded school simply because their parents are of the wrong religion or no religion, and it will mean that each school is more religiously and socio-economically diverse than the current highly selective admissions policies allow.

Secondly, those Catholics who can no longer get their children into a Catholic school would not find themselves at any disadvantage compared to the wider population; instead they would simply be on a par with other parents seeking places in the state system. Schools with no religious character are not atheistic but treat all faiths and none equally (with the exception of there being Collective Worship, which is mainly Christian); therefore nothing they teach will contradict the Catholic education that parents can provide their children at home and through Sunday school.

Don’t parents have a human right to send their children to faith schools?

Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (incorporated into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998) says ‘No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

Sometimes this Article has been used to argue that parents have a human right to send their children to faith schools. But this is a false interpretation. As Amnesty International commented in October 2000, allowing parents the freedom to educate their children in their own religion is not the same as obliging the state to pay for it: ‘This article guarantees people the right of access to existing educational institutions; it does not require the Government to establish or fund a particular type of education. The requirement to respect parents’ convictions is intended to prevent indoctrination by the state. However, schools can teach about religion and philosophy if they do so in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.

This makes sense. If parents cannot get their children into their favoured faith school, they can simply teach their children their religion in their own time, for example in a church or synagogue at the weekend. Nothing the school teaches will contradict this faith-based education.

This is also obvious if you look at other European countries. Very few developed countries, apart from the UK, have religiously selective state funded schools: the Republic of Ireland and Estonia do. In Germany, a small number of private religious schools receive state funds and can religiously select. And 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 others. Even countries with strong religious traditions, such as Italy, Spain, Poland and the USA, do not have religious discrimination in admissions to state-funded schools.

In 2010, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights similarly concluded, ‘We do not find persuasive the argument that it is necessary to allow faith schools to discriminate in their admissions on grounds of religion and belief in order to avoid a breach of the parents’ rights under Article 2 Protocol 1 of the European Convention.

Finally, article 29 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that ‘education of the child shall be directed to the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin’. Segregating children by the religion of their parents hinders this goal.

1. States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.

Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Why should we deny parents the ability to choose the best schools for their children?

We are campaigning for increased choice for parents, not for a decrease. If people want to send their children to a state-funded school in their area, they should be able to apply to it without feeling they risk discrimination because of their religion or belief.

Everyone wants good schools. And it is true that many religiously selective schools get good exam results. But if a state funded school is good, why shouldn’t it be available to local children regardless of their parents’ religion or beliefs, or socio-economic background?

On top of that, the notion that there even is choice is often a fiction. In 2013, the Public Accounts Committee reported that:

The Department [for Education] acknowledged that there is still work to do to establish the level of surplus places required in the system to meet its stated aim of providing not just sufficiency, but a level of parental choice. The Department planned funding to support an overall surplus of school places of 5%, but admits that this is at the lower end of a range required to provide flexibility and parental choice within the school system. 13% of local authorities did not have this minimum 5% surplus for primary places in May 2012.

And, as the Department acknowledges in the same report, in many areas 5% will be insufficient surplus to provide genuine choice, particularly in urban areas. This, coupled with decreased funding for local authorities, and the fact that place shortages have got much worse in recent years, means that in many, many parts of the country there will not now be a sufficient surplus of places to provide choice. Religious selection doesn’t change that.

Parents who support religiously selective schools pay taxes just like everyone else. Most schools do not religiously select – who are you to deny these parents the right to send their children to those that do?

Different taxpayers will always be making competing and incompatible demands on what their taxes are spent on, with no-one gaining an automatic right to have their wishes fulfilled – it is through democratic and civic participation that society decides how best to allocate these limited funds. We do not think that taxes should fund religiously selective schools for the reasons we have presented elsewhere, namely the religious, ethnic and socio-economic segregation their admissions policies cause.

We are also unconvinced by the argument that having religiously selective schools open up their admissions policies would prevent them from maintaining their distinctive ethos, as the next FAQ explains.

If faith schools can’t religiously select pupils, then how will they maintain their religiously distinctive ethos?

Many Church of England and Methodist schools already do not religiously select their pupils, and these schools have no problem maintaining their distinctiveness, and so we would not expect this to be a problem for other denominations or religions either. This campaign does not seek to challenge schools’ employment or curriculum policies or their ethos. Schools’ ethos will only change inasmuch as having a diverse intake changes them. And that can only add to mutual understanding and tolerance.

In 2010, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote that an ‘argument is that discrimination is necessary in order to maintain the distinctiveness of religious schools and so maintain the plurality of provision… This argument is weakened by evidence which suggests, in relation to Church of England schools, that plurality of provision has been preserved even where those schools do not have faith-based admissions criteria. It carries more weight in relation to other faith schools, however. In consequence, the exemption permitting faith schools to discriminate in their admissions on grounds of religion or belief may be overdrawn’.

Religious minorities need protection from persecution. If they cannot have their own schools then will they lose protection?

This campaign is not opposed to religious schools – simply to religious selection by schools. In addition, a strong way to tackle discrimination is to have children grow up knowing those with beliefs different from their own.

As a column in the Jewish Chronicle recently argued:

‘Do we really want everyone our child meets in his or her daily life to be Jewish? And conversely, if we remove our Jewish children from mainstream schools, we prevent non-Jewish children from ever meeting a Jewish child. We counter prejudice and antisemitism not by removing ourselves, but by being visible.

‘We need to share with others lessons and meals and sport, even detentions, so as to demystify ourselves and stress our similarities as members of humanity – and show that Jews are not one homogenous group.

‘Even more important to me than my children growing up to know that not everyone is like them, is that non-Jewish children know the same. I don’t want a non-Jew to go through school never meeting one of us. I don’t want my child, or yours, at work or university or at a party, to be told: “You are the first Jew I have ever met.” Do you?’

If religiously selective schools have inclusive admissions policies, will some children end up going to faith schools against their parents’ wishes and when they otherwise wouldn’t have?

This may in some cases be a consequence of religiously selective schools opening up their admissions policies. However, Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (incorporated into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998) guarantees that the state must ensure children are not indoctrinated by schools, and the Government would argue that it meets this requirement by providing parents and children the right to opt out of Religious Education and Collective Worship. Some of our supporters do contend that these opt-out rights are inadequate. But if this is an issue, it is a separate one from the problem of schools segregating children in the first place.

Even if religiously selective schools open up their admissions policies, won't they still tend to have homogeneous pupil bodies – as families who share the faith of the school will be more likely to choose them for their children?

If all religiously selective schools open up their admissions policies then not all religious segregation in the school system will have been removed. Some segregation is a consequence of existing residential segregation, while some families may prefer to send their children to schools where children of a similar religious, ethnic or cultural background congregate.

However, if state funded schools reject religiously selective admission policies then this will cause some schools to become significantly less religiously segregated, as well as taking the positive step of removing insurmountable formal barriers to families of the ‘wrong’ religion or of no religion even being able to gain admittance to them in the first place.

Free Schools admit 50% of pupils without reference to faith. Isn't this enough?

The limit on faith-based selection by Free Schools is very welcome. However, we have three responses to this question. First and foremost, the limit only affects a tiny proportion of schools – as of summer 2013, just 19 out of 6,845 religious schools, leaving the overwhelming majority unaffected. This number is less than the number of Voluntary Controlled schools converting to Academies and gaining the ability to religiously select pupils for the first time. And in addition, Voluntary Aided schools that select 100% of pupils on the basis of faith continue to open.

Secondly, we do not think 50% goes far enough. While such a limit goes some way towards preventing schools from being completely homogeneous, it will still be the case that 50% selective schools will turn away pupils because they are of no faith or the wrong faith. No-one would consider a state-funded hospital that gives people of a given religion priority for 50% of its beds any more acceptable than one that gives 100% priority. And a school with 50% faith-based places still enables religio-ethnic and socio-economic selection. To us this doesn’t seem right whatever degree to which it is practised.

Finally, some Free Schools have found ways to effectively select more than 50% of pupils on the basis of faith. For example, Becket Keys Church of England School used to use feeder schools for its 50% of places allocated without reference to faith – but 70% of these feeder places were at schools that themselves were religiously selective, meaning that 85% of all places were actually religiously selective.

Questions about the campaign

Is this campaign opposed to faith schools?

No – this campaign is solely focused on the issue of religious selection in admissions. Some of our supporters have wider concerns about faith-based schools, and some do not think they should receive state funding at all. Others support the presence of faith schools in the state sector and believe they are an important feature of diverse provision. But all are united in their opposition to faith-based admissions policies, which we collectively believe are discriminatory and divisive, in terms of religion, ethnicity and socio-economic background.

Is this campaign opposed to selection by schools on grounds of ability/gender/special educational needs?

Some state-funded schools are currently able to select on the basis of ability, gender or having special educational needs. Some of our supporters do not think they should be allowed to do this; others support these forms of selection. But every supporter agrees that state-funded schools should not be allowed to select pupils on the basis of religion because of its harmful effects in terms of segregation and damage to community cohesion.

If you wish to find out more about the campaigns to end selection in these other areas, we suggest you visit the websites of Comprehensive Future, in the case of selection on the basis of academic ability; and both the Alliance for Inclusive Education and the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, in the case of separation on the basis of special educational needs.

Is this campaign opposed to religious selection by private schools?

This campaign is narrowly focussed on the issue of state funded schools because the arguments in opposition to religious selection are much stronger when state funds are involved.

Why doesn’t this campaign cover Scotland/Northern Ireland?

England and Wales are not the only parts of the UK to face issues with religious selection – it occurs in Northern Ireland and in some council areas in Scotland. However, this campaign is being run by a number of organisations, some of which operate only in England and Wales, and so England and Wales are the focus of the campaign.

Challenges to the evidence around religious selection

If religiously selective schools open up their admissions policies, schools will usually select based on catchment areas or distance from the school instead of religion. Doesn’t this just mean that house prices will go up around the best schools and communities will still be economically segregated?

It is true that ending faith-based selection won’t solve all problems in terms of socio-economic segregation in schools. But to this question we have two responses. First of all, it will stop segregation based on religion and ethnicity happening to anywhere near the extent it occurs at the moment. And secondly, it will significantly reduce socio-economic segregation given the extent of such selection that rides on the back of religious selection. Research from The Guardian published in March 2012 found that in England 76% of Catholic primaries and 65% of Catholic secondaries, as well as 63.5% of Church of England primaries and 40% of Church of England secondaries (the Church of England has a relatively small presence at the secondary stage) had a smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (an accepted bench mark for deprivation) than the average for their local postcode.

A school that is allowed to select religiously (and hence socio-economically) can cream off the best pupils right at the start, regardless of how good the teaching in the school actually is. This presents a higher barrier to the schools performing equally than would otherwise be the case.

As to catchment areas, case law (cited in the School Admissions Code) makes clear that they must be reasonable. Schools may not use arbitrary catchment areas to engineer social selection.

Didn’t religiously selective schools always perform well in Ofsted’s measure of community cohesion?

From 2006 to 2011, Ofsted had to inspect schools specifically on how they promoted community cohesion. While this was a requirement, religiously selective schools often performed quite well on this measure.

However, while this requirement was very welcome and the requirement’s repeal was disappointing, it was also the case that the inspection criteria used were inadequate. For example, there was no consideration given to how representative schools were of their local communities in terms of religion or belief, ethnicity or socio-economic factors. As a result, schools could have highly unrepresentative intakes in terms of religion, ethnicity and socio-economic factors, and yet still be classed by Ofsted as performing well on this measure by being cohesive within the school and having good links within the community – despite these having less of an impact than if the school was itself diverse.

Ofsted therefore did not find that religiously selective schools’ net contribution to community cohesion was better than other schools, as it never asked this question. It merely found that this sector undertook more pro-active measures than other schools to try and promote better community cohesion. This might be seen as taking small steps to repair the damage to community cohesion they had caused in the first place by purposely segregating children on the basis of faith.

Couldn’t the difference in the number of pupils requiring free school meals at religiously selective schools just be down to different faith communities having different socio-economic make-ups?

2009 paper by academics Rebecca Allen and Anne West found that ‘These are Roman Catholic (RC) schools in Inner London with very affluent intakes, though the areas they are located in have quite high levels of income deprivation… the evidence suggests that some ‘élite’ secondary schools are “selecting in” and “selecting out” particular pupils. A range of different admissions criteria and practices are identified which appear to foster school selectivity… Previous research [also] suggests that there is an association between school composition and the use of selective and potentially selective criteria…Overall, religious schools educate a much smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals and their intakes are significantly more affluent than the neighbourhood in which they are located.’ They go on to conclude that organisations external to the schools should administer the selection process.

In other words, even if different religious groups have different socio-economic make-ups, the evidence still shows that religious selection by schools leads, unwittingly or otherwise, to much greater socio-economic segregation.

More pupils at Catholic schools come from deprived areas. Free school meals is one measure among many.

It is true that pupils in Catholic schools are more likely to come from deprived areas. For this reason, Catholic schools look relatively better on the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI), a measure that includes how deprived an area is, than on comparisons of numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals; the Catholic Education Service prefers to use IDACI. But this difference simply reflects the fact that Catholic schools are more likely to be in inner cities. It is not the same as saying that the pupils are actually more likely to be the most deprived people within those areas. To work this out, you would need to look at a measure of deprivation for individual families – not simply for their areas. This is what the free school meals measure does. And while Catholic schools admit more pupils on free school meals than Church of England schools, they admit relatively fewer when compared to their own local areas.

Pupils are required to register to receive free school meals. Many do not. This skews any statistics based on free school meals.

Some people have argued that because not every pupil eligible for free school meals is registered, and this fact distorts the figures when comparing some It is true that parents need to register their children to receive free school meals. But this is why research looks at the proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals, not the proportion actually taking them.  With that said, only those registered are counted as eligible. But there is no evidence to suggest that it would affect religiously selective schools more than other schools.

The Department for Education has the following to say on free school meals, when discussing its use in determining allocation of the Pupil Premium (which is intended to go to schools for each pupil they have who is from a disadvantaged background):

But isn’t FSM an inaccurate measure of disadvantage?

FSM is the only pupil level measure of deprivation available. The link between FSM eligibility and underachievement is very strong and data on FSM is easily collected and updated annually. The FSM indicator best fits the rationale for the premium.