Allowing more religious selection in schools would be a big mistake

Social cohesion is one of our country’s biggest concerns as our population grows increasingly diverse. You’d therefore think it would be unwise, to say the least, to put forth policy which would increasingly divide England’s children according to religion, race and social grade.

But that’s what the Government may well do. Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning to allow faith-based academies to select all pupils based on religion.

A third of state schools in England are faith schools. They come in different varieties, with different rules. For example, most state funded Catholic faith schools are voluntary aided, which means they can select 100% of their pupils by reference to religion when oversubscribed, usually through proof of baptism or regular church attendance.

But these days, faith schools usually open under the academies system. In this system, different rules apply.

When the academies system was still new in 2010, a ‘50% cap rule’ was introduced to make sure new state funded academies could no longer select all children by religion. The rule requires all new religious academies to keep at least half their places open to any local child, irrespective of religion. The whole point was to promote more inclusive schools.

The cap is the only meaningful way the Government has sought to mitigate against the segregation that results from faith-based education. It’s not ideal – no state funded schools should practise religious discrimination in the first place – but at least it ensures faith schools go some way to meeting the needs of a broader mix of families.

Now it appears that senior officials at Downing Street are planning to relax the 50% cap, opening the door for a new wave of faith schools which can select all of their pupils based on religious criteria alone.

Why is it doing this? Well, the Catholic Church doesn’t like the cap.

The Catholic Education Service claims the cap results in the schools they run turning away Catholics because they are Catholic – and is therefore incompatible with Catholic ‘canon law’. This makes the opening of new Catholic free schools impossible, it says.

This simply isn’t true. Once a faith academy has accepted 50% of children based on religion, the factors for accepting the other 50% must not include religion at all. Not a single student would be turned away from a Catholic state school with the 50% cap because they are Catholic.

But even if it were true, the Catholic canon or any other sort of religious ‘laws’ shouldn’t be dictating admissions policies in our state funded schools.

If our increasingly secularised yet religiously diverse society is to succeed, children need to learn to live respectfully and harmoniously alongside one another. You don’t achieve that by making schools silos of segregation. Yet permitting faith-based academies to select all pupils based on religion would result in more schools becoming homogenous religious communities.

Dropping the 50% cap will inevitably open the door to more mono-religious and often mono-ethnic minority faith schools. It will be a disaster for social cohesion.

On top of this, there is a wealth of evidence that faith schools’ admissions policies disadvantage those with the greatest need. In February, a report from the Education Policy Institute found that faith academies are less likely to reflect their local areas in terms of the number of children they admit from low income backgrounds.

Research published in January by the Sutton Trust found that faith schools “are consistently more socially selective than non-religious schools”, admitting significantly fewer children on free school meals.

In its latest annual report published in March, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator highlighted how faith schools “effectively disadvantage” looked after children as a result of faith-based oversubscription criteria which gives children from religious families first dibs.

And last year research from the London School of Economics found faith schools admit fewer children with special educational needs and disabilities.

A policy to pave the way for a more schools selecting all pupils based on faith would therefore be perverse. It’s hard to think of a more retrograde education policy than enabling greater religious discrimination and segregation of children in our schools.

It’s easy to see why Catholic bishops and other minority faith leaders might want a new wave of religiously exclusive, segregated schools – all funded by taxpayers.

But it’s hard to see why the Government would. It’s hardly a vote winner. A previous manifesto commitment to scrap the cap was abandoned after pushback from campaigners, including the National Secular Society. This week, education experts, politicians, religious leaders and other public figures signed an open letter calling for the cap to stay.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has previously called on the UK to end the use of religion as a selection criterion in school admissions. Government guidance on “Promoting fundamental British values” describes it as “unacceptable” for schools to “promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background”. Scrapping the cap and allowing even more schools to apply 100% religious selection in their admissions would result in precisely the discrimination the Government calls “unacceptable.”

Could it be that Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and Minister for Schools Damian Hinds, who are both Catholic, are prioritising the wishes of Catholic bishops above the best interests of children and their fundamental right to be educated without discrimination?

The whole concept of faith schools could use a rethink. In a society as diverse as ours, rather than facilitating segregation along religious lines, the Government should be doing everything it can to ensure that children of all faiths and none are educated together.

The schools we all fund should exemplify principles of equality and fairness, not encourage social fragmentation and isolation. Abandoning the 50% cap would exacerbate the myriad problems inherent in faith schools – and run contrary to values that should be at the heart of our society.

Making faith schools, and by extension society, even more divided and discriminatory at the behest of religious leaders would be big mistake.

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