School entry criteria based on religion must be reduced and eventually eliminated in order to create a fairer and safer school system in Britain, says the National Secular Society (NSS).
In response to a consultation on school admissions which closes this week, the NSS has recommended the abolition of discrimination in admissions to state-funded faith schools.
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, said: “A third of publicly-funded schools are religious in character and the proportion is rising, despite religious observance being in chronic decline. This means that children of families of no-faith or the ‘wrong’ faith are being increasingly discriminated against in securing admission to schools as there are so many are religious ones.
“The Church of England runs a quarter of publicly funded schools, and claims that they are “inclusive” Yet many of their schools admissions policies discriminate heavily in favour of Christians and against those of other faiths/denominations or none. Many Church of England schools attract mainly white children with aspiring parents. This impedes social and racial integration and causes a disproportionately high concentration of children from ethic minorities and less well off families to attend community schools which fuel a cycle of underachievement. In areas with large concentrations of minority ethic pupils, there can be little justification for schools remaining under the control of the CofE. We were pleased to see Work and Pensions minister Margaret Hodge warning at a speech on Saturday that faith schools should open their gates to all or be shut down
“In the longer term, the NSS would like to see all religious schools and city technology colleges (which also have admissions privileges) become community schools, especially in areas where a religious school is currently the only practical choice. Until this is achieved, the Society recommends as an interim measure that no more than 75% of places be offered to children of the designated religion, and within two years the suspension of religious entry criteria. This would result in both religious and community schools having a much more representative mix of children.
“A much more even mix of pupils would have a significant benefit for the education of those in community schools, as happened in North Carolina in the USA. Pupils there made dramatic improvements in reading and maths by making a concerted effort to integrate the schools economically, limiting the proportion of low-income students in any school to no more than 40 percent. In some areas CofE schools are cherry picking the best pupils, leaving the community schools with an unfair burden. Academies are even exempted from the penalties for excluding pupils that are borne by other schools, which further burdens community schools with a disproportionate number of less able and less well-supported pupils.
“We also fear the implications for race relations in the longer term of a major expansion of minority faith schools, with their predominantly minority ethnic intake. We understand the frustration that any refusal to build such schools will cause, given the thousands of CofE schools, and that more of them are being opened. The answer is in the longer term for church schools to be transferred to LEA control and become community schools, unless they wish to continue without public funding.”