Ten reasons why we should object to religious selection by schools

This page sets out why we should object to faith-based admissions. You can find out more about the law on admissions and how many schools of each type there are elsewhere on the site. Our mapping exercise has established for the first time exactly how widespread religious selection by state schools is. It found that 16% of places at state schools, or 1.2 million, are subject to religious selection in their admissions criteria.

It is discrimination

The Fair Admissions Campaign believes that it is fundamentally wrong for state-funded schools to be able to turn away local children simply on the basis of the religion or beliefs of them or their parents or carers. It is only possible because faith schools have special exemptions from equalities legislation.

No other public services are restricted to people on religious grounds. It would seem absurd if, for example, patients could be turned away and directed to a different NHS hospital because of their religion; if people could gain better access to public housing due to the Church they went to; or if only people of a certain faith could enlist in particular branches of the armed services. Yet in a large number of state funded schools in England and Wales, children can be, and are, excluded on the grounds of faith. This is discrimination.

It segregates children on religious and ethnic grounds, which is bad for community cohesion

Community cohesion is vital for harmony in a plural society. But dividing and segregating children on religious grounds in schools means they grow up more, rather than less, removed from those of different backgrounds. Instead of promoting harmony, segregation promotes misunderstanding and allows mistrust of ‘The Other’ to more readily grow. Division on the grounds of religion can also have the added complexity of serving as a proxy for division on the grounds of race and ethnicity.

I do not see how any man, wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can ever be permanently established, or the prosperity of the country ever well secured, if children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinions. I do not know any measure which would prepare the way for a better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age, and bringing them up in the same schools, leading them to commune with one another, and to form those little intimacies and friendships which often subsist through life’

Dr James Doyle, Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, before a Committee of the UK Parliament in 1830

The Cantle Report’ was commissioned by the Home Office and published in 2001 after race riots in Bradford, Leeds, Oldham and Burnley that year. The report noted how riots had not arisen in diverse areas, such as Southall and Leicester, where pupils learnt about different religions and cultures in local schools, and was concerned that some schools appeared to be ‘operating discriminatory policies where religious affiliations protect cultural and ethnic divisions’. At the launch of ‘The Cantle Report into Community Cohesion in Blackburn with Darwen’ (2009) its author, Prof Ted Cantle, stated that faith schools with religious admission requirements were ‘automatically a source of division’ in the town.

In contrast, we know that mixed schooling has a positive effect upon the growth of mutual understanding. Among the key findings of ‘Social Capital, Diversity and Education Policy’, by Professor Irene Bruegel of the London South Bank University Families & Social Capital ESRC Research Group (2006) were that ‘Friendship at primary schools can, and does, cross ethnic and faith divides wherever children have the opportunity to make friends from different backgrounds. At that age, in such schools, children are not highly conscious of racial differences and are largely unaware of the religion of their friends … There was [also] some evidence that parents learned to respect people from other backgrounds as a result of their children’s experiences in mixed schools.’

Identities in Transition: A Longitudinal Study of Immigrant Children’, by Rupert Brown, Adam Rutland & Charles Watters from the Universities of Sussex and Kent (2008) found that the effects of children from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds mixing at school ‘… were consistent, most evidently on social relations: higher self-esteem, fewer peer problems and more cross-group friendships. Such findings show that school ethnic composition can significantly affect the promotion of positive intergroup attitudes. These findings speak against policies promoting single faith schools, since such policies are likely to lead to reduced ethnic diversity in schools.’

Religiously selective admission policies are clearly not responsible for all ethnic and religious segregation in the state education system, but they can only make it worse. Religiously selective schools can mitigate this effect by having special exchanges and joint workings with other schools, but these are rather time consuming and roundabout ways of tackling what can be achieved more simply and effectively in shared schools.

It increases the division between children along socio-economic lines, which goes against what Church schools say they stand for

By permitting faith selection, the best faith schools provide another way for sharp elbowed parents to get their children admitted. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some parents feign religious belief and practice to help their child into religiously selective schools. Meanwhile, according to ‘Religious schools in London: school admissions, religious composition and selectivity’ by Rebecca Allen and Anne West (2009), ‘… sanctioning by the School Admissions Code of the collection of additional information from parents and religious leaders to determine the extent of religious adherence (e.g., via supplementary information forms) ensures that religious schools continue to have a means to socially select pupils, should they wish to do so’.

We know that socio-economic selection does happen. Reporting on her research before the Children, Schools and Families Committee in 2008, Rebecca Allen noted that ‘In my most recent research… I was able to show that religious schools have higher ability and lower free school meal intakes compared with the neighbourhoods in which they are located. To give you an idea of the magnitude of those effects, if we take a community school and a voluntary-aided religious school, both located in a neighbourhood with exactly the same levels of deprivation, the community school is likely to have about 50% more free school meal children than the voluntary-aided school.’

This was compounded by research by The Guardian published in March 2012 that found that 76% of Catholic primaries and 65% of Catholic secondaries in England had a smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (a government bench mark for deprivation) than the average for the first half of their postcode. Encouragingly, the figure for Church of England secondaries was 40%. However, the Church has a much smaller presence at the secondary stage, compared to the primary – the figure for its much more plentiful primary schools was 63.5%.

Similar research conducted by the Fair Admissions Campaign using the latest available data has found that:

  • Comprehensive secondary schools with no religious character admit 5% more pupils eligible for free school meals than live in their local areas. Comprehensive Church of England secondaries admit 15% fewer; Roman Catholic secondaries 28% fewer; Jewish secondaries 63% fewer; and Muslim secondaries 29% fewer.
  • A clear correlation is found between the degree of religious selection and how socio-economically exclusive schools are. Comprehensive schools with no religious character typically admit 5% more pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected given their areas. Religious comprehensives that do not select by religion typically admit 1% fewer, but those whose admissions criteria allow religious selection for all places typically admit 30% fewer.
  • The correlation between religious and socio-economic selection holds even if we focus on comprehensive CofE schools alone: those that don’t select admit 1% fewer than would be expected, while those that fully select admit 35% fewer.
  • Only 16% of schools select by religion but they are vastly overrepresented in the 100 worst offenders on free school meal eligibility and English as an additional language. They make up 46 of the worst 100 schools on FSM eligibility and 50 of the worst 100 on EAL. (If grammar schools, University Technical Colleges and Studio schools are excluded, religiously selective schools account for 73 of the worst 100 on FSM eligibility and 59 of the worst 100 on EAL.)

Serving the better-heeled in their communities is a distortion to the original mission of most Church schools. The National Society, which created most Anglican schools, was established to provide schools for children from poor families. Similarly the precursor to the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales was named the ‘Catholic Poor School Committee’.

It is unnecessary on the grounds of ‘ethos’

An argument often made in favour of schools religiously selecting in admissions is that it helps faith schools maintain their ‘ethos’. But, commendably, a great many faith schools already do not operate any form of prioritisation by faith, yet still maintain their ethos, helping show that faith discrimination is unnecessary and disproportionate.

In contrast, some schools justify religiously selective admissions because their mission is to assist parents to pass their faith on to their children, so they are open about wanting to exclude children from other backgrounds. But this ignores the fact that these schools are entirely, or almost entirely, paid for by society at large, even though they are usually owned by a religious group or a trust.

There is no longer a financial justification

100% of the running costs of faith schools in the state sector are paid for out of taxation. The taxpayer also pays 100% of the ongoing capital costs for faith Academies, and between 90% and 100% for Voluntary Aided Schools – with churches contributing far less than the 50% that originally applied under the 1944 Education Act. Even the tiny contribution that remains is typically not paid for by the Church, but is fundraised from the parents by the school. The argument that religious selection is justified because schools and their sponsors help to meet the costs of the schools has essentially been completely eroded.

Religiously selective schools are an ill fit within the state funded system

By selecting pupils on faith grounds and creating a more homogeneous student body, religiously selective schools have the knock on effect of making nearby schools more segregated too, even if those schools aspire to admit pupils from all sections of their local community.

Meanwhile, religiously selective schools also cause particular problems when admissions authorities implement feeder systems: if a religiously selective school is included as a feeder to a school without a religious character, then the latter’s admissions authority may become open to the charge of facilitating indirect religious discrimination, which if proven, is likely to be found illegal. The same might also be true if a religiously selective school was left out of a feeder system for the same reason.

Some have argued that a fair solution to religiously selective schools is for other selective schools to be opened for under-represented groups. But that would be both damaging and unacceptably costly.

Not only would it would increase, rather than reduce, the overall amount of discrimination and segregation, as more and more children would become excluded from local schools for not having the ‘right’ beliefs, it would also have massive implications for travel time and cost, requiring the state to fund potentially massive over-provision in order to accommodate the variety of requirements. Meanwhile, many religion and belief groups do not want to open their own schools, often for some of the same reasons listed here. It is clear to the Fair Admission Campaign that the less religious discrimination in pupil admissions the better, with no religious selection at state funded schools the ultimate goal.

It is unpopular and gives faith groups a bad name

Not only is religious discrimination unfair, divisive and an abuse of privilege, but it is also out of step with public opinion. A ComRes survey undertaken in November 2012 for the Fair Admissions Campaign co-founding group, the Accord Coalition, showed that people believed by more than four to one that ‘state funded schools, including state funded faith schools, should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’.

The current arrangements privilege some (often Anglicans and Roman Catholics in particular) at the expense of others, and the Fair Admissions Campaign is supported by lay members and clergy from groups who are often most privileged and who recognise this unfairness. The pressure for change can also only grow further given the increasing plurality among people of faith, the growing proportion of people who consider themselves non-religious, and, in many areas, increased competition for school places.

Rather than serving the affluent and being used to maintain and privilege adherents, many would like Church schools to be open to all children in school’s local community, regardless of religion. Some argue this would better reflect the values of their faith and religious authorities.

It is out of step with our international competitors

A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that the UK was one of only a very few OECD member countries that permit religious selection at state schools (table 2.3 p15).

Our own research has reinforced this finding: very few developed countries, apart from the UK, have religiously selective state funded schools. The OECD identified that Republic of Ireland, Estonia and Israel do. In some Canadian provinces there are publicly funded Catholic schools that can refuse admission to non-Catholics before high school. 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.

It is out of step with historic advances for the freedom of religion

The Elementary Education Act 1870 established state schools in England and Wales for the first time. It prevented the newly state funded schools from selecting pupils on the grounds of children’s religious observance or belief, while the Universities Tests Act 1871 brought to an end religious selection in admissions at Universities in the UK. Previously place of study at the (at that time) privately funded Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham could be restricted to Anglicans.

It shall not be required, as a condition of any child being admitted into or continuing in the school, that he shall attend or abstain from attending any Sunday school, or any place of religious worship, or that he shall attend any religious observance or any instruction in religious subjects in the school or elsewhere’ 

Elementary Education Act 1870, Chapter 75, section 7.1. (since repealed)

However, over 140 years later not only have these rights applied to admissions in Higher Education not been extended to state funded schools, but schools in the state funded sector can now discriminate against children because of their beliefs and practices. Not only was religious discrimination out of keeping with mainstream values of the Victorian era, but protections offered in the 1870s have regressed.

Schools’ conduct should be exemplary

The Fair Admissions Campaign opposes religiously selective admissions because schools’ conduct should be exemplary. Not only do religiously selective admissions incentivise families to feign belief and adherence, but they also entrench religious discrimination in the very institutions that should be equipping pupils for positively critical and respectful engagement with the challenges of living in a mixed-belief society.

Schools play a vital role in advancing pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. If our schools are not inclusive then our society will not be.

Supporters of the Fair Admissions Campaign derive inspiration for their beliefs from different sources, including religious and philosophical ones, but are united by common values. We believe children should not be the victim of discrimination by schools, and discrimination should not be a part of school life, least of all in the name of religion.

‘I want my children to go to a school where they can sit next to a Christian, play football at break time with a Muslim, do homework with a Hindu and walk home with an atheist – and with other children getting to know what a Jewish child is like. Schools should build bridges, not erect barriers.’

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, Minister of Maidenhead Synagogue and Chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education

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