Religious selection in admissions debated at General Synod fringe event

Building on the launch of the Fair Admissions Campaign in June, one of the founding groups of the campaign, the Accord Coalition, held a fringe event on the future of religiously selective admission policies at Church of England schools at the meeting of its General Synod in York yesterday (July 8th). Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, was joined on the panel of speakers by Fair Admissions Campaigns supporter, Professor Ted Cantle CBE of the iCoCo Foundation, as well as Huw Thomas, former head teacher of a joint Church of England and Roman Catholic School and Education Director for the Diocese of Sheffield.

Rabbi Romain contended that appeals for religiously selective Anglican schools to modify their admission policy present the Church with a moral challenge. He argued that choosing between a Christian system that allowed selection and a non-Christian one that did not was a false choice, and that committing to not discriminating was not a ‘secular sound bite’, but also a religious principle. He noted the comments made in 2011 by the Chair for the Church of England Board of Education Board, The Rt Revd John Pritchard, that it was his hope that the number of places reserved for Anglicans at Church Schools could be reduced to 10%.

Professor Ted Cantle CBE spoke of the findings his 2001 ‘Cantle Report’ into that year’s race riots, which found that people living in riot-hit areas were leading ‘parallel lives’ where they did not mix with people from other backgrounds in social, work and invariably school life. He argued this led to people living in fear and ignorance and created an environment where mistrust and even hatred could be stirred. He noted that while the 2011 Census showed that British society was slightly less segregated overall, it disguised some areas where minority groups had become more residentially segregated, while evidence suggests that faith and ethnic segregation between schools has not improved, but has got worse.

Professor Ted Cantle highlighted what he saw as an apparent irony between the Church of England embracing central Government’s ‘Near Neighbours’ scheme, which seeks to advance community relations, and those Anglican schools that select pupils on faith grounds, which be believed undermined social cohesion, and urged selective Anglican schools to recognise and address the inconsistency of their approach.

Huw Thomas explained that he needed to know there was a good reason to prevent people or bodies from doing things they might wish to do, and took issue with how some critics of religiously selective schools framed such selection in terms of exclusivity and separation. He argued that many organisations in society sought to engage with and cater to particular constituencies; that all schools needed to select which children to admit when oversubscribed, and questioned why faith and Church Schools should be singled out and accused critics of advancing a separatist agenda.

He also argued that other forms of selection in education could be shown to be more pernicious, such as division by postcode, and noted that in his experience when deciding upon the location of new schools Diocesan Boards of Education favoured locating them in more vulnerable areas. He also highlighted that the first school where he was head teacher admitted about 95% of pupils from a Muslim background.

Mr Thomas argued that Church schools sought to engage with and develop pupils’ ‘huge’ spiritual capacity and that by helping pupils grow a stronger sense of faith identity so pupils were better able to go out into the world and relate to those around them. He appealed to Synod members to keep in mind what kind of society they would like when considering what Church schools do.

As meeting Chair, Rabbi Romain took interventions from the audience. A Synod member from Cheltenham urged that a distinction be made between Church schools in rural areas, which he believed acted like community schools, and Church schools in urban areas, which he argued was where most selection in admissions takes place. The member also argued that a parental choice agenda was currently the driving force in school age education and that those who favoured religiously selective policies the most were parents.

Another Synod member spoke of feeling ‘tarnished’ for their involvement in drawing up the religiously selective admissions policy of a school, and questioned whether Church schools should be providing incentives for parents, prospective governors, teachers and job applicants to feign religious adherence.