NSS “appalled” at plans for more discriminatory faith schools

The National Secular Society has said it is “appalled” at government plans to allow greater religious discrimination at faith schools.

The government has today announced that it will remove the ‘50% cap’ rule on pupil admissions at state-funded faith schools in England.

Under the 50% cap, new free schools with a religious character may only select up to 50% of pupils based on religion when they are oversubscribed.

Removing the cap would enable these schools to select 100% of children based on their parents’ religion if oversubscribed. Voluntary aided faith schools are already permitted to select 100% of pupils on the basis of religion. Under the plans, the 50% cap rule would no longer apply to new faith schools and existing free schools designated with a religious character could apply to remove the cap by amending their funding agreement to affect the change.

Earlier this month, the NSS co-signed an open letter, along with over 30 other organisations and individuals, calling on the Government to keep the cap.

In June, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said schools in England should be prevented from using religion to select pupils.

The Government also plans to enable faith groups to run academies for children with special educational needs and disabilities (‘special academies’).

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: “We are appalled that the government is going ahead with this reckless plan to abolish the 50% cap, just to appease the demands of religious leaders.

“It will open the door for a new wave of faith schools which effectively lock out families of different religions and beliefs.”

Government caves in to religious lobbying

The Government has been heavily lobbied by the Catholic Church to remove the 50% cap. The Catholic Church claims the cap is incompatible with Catholic ‘canon law’ so it cannot open any new free schools.

Most Catholic schools in England have complex admissions criteria which require children to be baptised Catholics to be prioritised. Many prioritise baptised Catholics above looked-after children who are not Catholic.

Additionally, many Church of England schools prioritise children whose parents regularly attend church.

A previous effort to abolish the cap was abandoned by the Government in 2018, following protests led by the NSS. At the time, Schools Minister Damian Hinds cited “good community and integration reasons” for retaining the cap.

Faith schools more socially selective, discriminate against most vulnerable children

Announcing the plans, education secretary Gillian Keegan said faith groups “run some of the best schools in the country”, including “in some of the most disadvantaged areas”.

But research has shown that any educational advantages for faith schools are explained by religiously selective admissions arrangements, rather than a faith ethos.

Religious selection means that faith schools accept disproportionately fewer children from low income families, children with special educational needs and disabilities, and children in care. It can also lead to increased ethnic segregation.

The Church of England and the Catholic Church have both expressed an interest in opening faith-based special academies. The Schools Minister, Damian Hinds, said that admissions for these schools would “still be based on children’s education, health, and care plan, rather than faith or religious-practice criteria. But it will mean that you can have a special school with a religious character and with the freedoms that come with that.”

Both the CofE and the Catholic Church have been repeatedly criticised by safeguarding experts for prioritising their institutional agendas above safeguarding children and vulnerable people.

The CofE announced last year that it plans to use schools to “double the number of children and young people who are active Christian disciples by 2030”.

Evans said the creation of faith-based special academies “raises ethical issues concerning the imposition of religion on children with special educational needs and disabilities”.

He said: “We will be keen to ensure that SEND provision is not used to expose vulnerable children to religious proselytising.”

NSS: “Divisive and discriminatory faith schools are not the answer”

The NSS has said it will be urgently campaigning against the Government’s plans.

Evans said: “Our state schools should bring children from different backgrounds together, not divide them along religious lines. Abandoning the cap to pave way for more religiously selective schools will only exacerbate the discrimination, division, and disadvantage that faith based education encourages.

“Allowing new faith academies to apply 100% religious selection would be entirely wrongheaded and run contrary to values that should be at the heart of our society.

“We encourage all those in favour of inclusive schools to join us in telling the Government: keep the 50% cap.”

The Government is seeking views on the above plans. The consultation is open now and closes on 20 June.

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