Faith schools: government plans to drop the 50 per cent cap on faith-based pupil selection.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The government’s recent proposal to drop any cap on the number of pupils that state-funded faith schools can select on the basis of their parent’s belief has brought arguments back into focus about the role religious organisations play in running parts of our education system.

The UK is one of only four OECD countries that have state-funded schools which allow faith-based selection, the others being Estonia, Ireland and Israel. Successive UK governments have, nevertheless, favoured faith schools for their claimed quality of education, despite criticism from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

However, doubts have been cast on whether the higher performance of faith schools is attributable to a genuinely superior ability to run schools when there is a ‘faith ethos’, or if there is instead a covert selection of children who have more ambitious and wealthier parents better able to support and encourage their offspring to do well.  Using eligibility for free school meals as a proxy, there has been research that shows faith schools have more pupils from well-off families than the equivalent non-faith schools. This does not imply a deliberate bias by schools but may well reflect middle class parents ‘gaming’ the system.

This is not the only concern about state-funded faith schools. Such schools have an element of freedom over how they teach RSE (Relationship and Sex Education), which can lead to children being given a misleading impression of the role of women in relationships and being denied information on LGBTQ+ people. Yet despite this freedom, some schools still blatantly go further, ignoring what guidance there is in order to avoid covering topics they feel run contrary to their religion’s teachings.  

Faith schools are also free to set their RE (Religious Education) syllabus. Although many doubtless do an excellent job, the Church of England is quite open about its “vision to double the number of children and young people who are active Christian disciples by 2030” – this using taxpayers’ money, remember, rather than its own considerable resources. Religious Education should be an opportunity to broaden children’s minds and boost awareness of the diversity of faith and belief to be found in this country, not be used as a means to proselytise.

Another concern is that at a time when we desperately need more integration between and understanding amongst communities, selecting children on the basis of faith and belief can be an active obstacle. Faith schools tend to group children of similar backgrounds together, restricting their opportunities to get to know people different from themselves and potentially having a negative effect on pupils’ opportunities and aspirations.

Parents can face real practical problems if their local schools are all faith schools and they are non-religious or of a different religion. They may fail to get a place for their child near to where they live and the consequent need to transport their children further every day can make their lives much more difficult. Even if places are available locally in faith schools, parents may face the dilemma of either sending their children to a school with a religious ethos they do not share, or being forced to travel further to find a school that better matches their own beliefs.

There is also a fundamental principle at stake here. Taxpayer-funded services should be open to those who have need of them, regardless of their religion or belief. The idea that you could be turned away from a particular hospital or a library because you are a Christian or a Humanist would fill almost all of us with horror. Discrimination based on a person’s belief belongs in the distant past, not the 21st century. Selection for school places on a similar basis should also be consigned to the past as a matter of basic justice.

If you object to the government proposals to drop the 50 per cent cap, please write to your MP before the consultation ends on 20 June 2024 to express your concerns. You can find a link to help you do so on this page: