Religious selection in state schools must end

Ending religious selection in state schools is a policy that the Labour party should support.

Imagine if thousands of ordinary state schools in England could refuse to admit children because their parents were practising Christians, or Muslims, or members of any other recognised religion.

Imagine the reaction if these schools could require parents, as a condition of entry, to attest in writing that they had not worshiped in a religious institution for three years, and that they would not do so again in the future.

There would be uproar, and rightly so, at the infringement of religious freedoms that this would entail. There would be stories in the press about the victims of these policies, features on Christian families who could not send their children to their local state school because they refused to give up their faith.

Yet society tolerates this situation in relation to children of non-religious parents. As the Fair Admissions campaign has highlighted so well, many state-funded religious schools can select all their pupils on the basis of religion provided that they are oversubscribed. And the better the religious school, the more likely it is to be oversubscribed.

Given what we know about religious belief and practice in England and Wales, it is likely that the majority of parents and children are adversely affected by religious selection. In a YouGov poll conducted in March 2011, 65 per cent of people answered ‘no’ to the question ‘are you religious?’

And by no means all of the 29 per cent who answered ‘yes’ to this question regularly attend a religious service. For example, a study by Christian Research in 2007-2008 documented the steady decline in church attendance in recent years, with only 6.7 per cent of the UK population regularly attending church (compared with 10 per cent in 1990).

This suggests that most parents either have their choice of schools curtailed due to their atheism, agnosticism or chosen method of religious practice (worshiping privately rather than in a church, for example), or they feel that they have to feign belief, attend regular religious services and jump through other onerous hoops, such as getting their children baptised and sending them to Sunday school, in order to get them into their school of choice.

The Fair Admissions website contains case studies the likes of which will be familiar to many: the atheist father who attended weekly Church of England services for two years so that his son could go to the state primary just across the road; the parents in a small village whose only state secondary school selects on the basis of religion and is therefore inaccessible; the parents in Richmond who are fighting a campaign against the number of selective religious schools in their area which are hampering choice for non-religious families.

The entry in the Good Schools Guide gives a revealing summary of what parents are up against:

Some of the best UK schools have a religious foundation, and are more or less devoted to educating children of that religion. You need to start attending church weekly at least a year before conception to have a chance at some schools. The good Catholic schools are a vital component of the state school scene in such places as Central London.”

Religious selection is clearly at odds with Michael Gove and David Cameron’s ‘choice’ agenda, as it restricts the choice of the majority of non-religious parents – in some areas severely. It will also restrict the choice of religious parents if the religiously selective schools nearby select on the basis of a different faith.

However this hasn’t stopped Michael Gove approving a further 5,800 new school places which are likely to be subject to religious admissions criteria.

Supporters of selective religious schools might counter that selection only kicks in if schools are oversubscribed, so more religious schools does not necessarily mean less choice for parents in the locality.

If everyone went to school in their local area then this might follow, but there are many cases of children from religious families travelling outside their catchment area to attend a specific religious school. These children get priority over local children.

It is perhaps surprising, given our increasingly secular society, that this palpably unfair system of selection still operates. There are various possible reasons for this: fear amongst politicians of offending those with deeply held religious beliefs; the organisational and lobbying power of religious groups; the absence until recently of a campaign challenging the political consensus in favour of religious selection.

It is also possible that many people think selective religious schools are funded by the relevant religious institution; it could be that many would be surprised to learn that state funds, paid for by everyone, are used in such an exclusive and discriminatory way. As Fair Admissions points out, such discrimination would be unthinkable in other public services such as social care or housing.

There is currently growing pressure on school places in England which means that frustration and anger at the current system is likely to intensify.

The recent launch of the Fair Admissions campaign, therefore, could not be more timely. Their campaign is not advocating the abolition of religious schools, just an end to selection on the basis of religion, and is supported by some religious groups and figures who want a more inclusive education system.

Ending religious selection in state schools is a policy that the Labour party should support.

It is the right thing to do, it is moderate (in contrast to calls to abolish religious schools altogether), it promises real, tangible change in an area that affects many people’s daily lives, it increases parental choice and it is likely to have widespread support. At the moment, Labour doesn’t have too many policies like that.

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