Religious selection: frequently asked questions

Religious selection: frequently asked questions

No. Surveys consistently show the public oppose faith-based discrimination at schools funded by their taxes:

  • A 2016 Populus poll found 72% of voters from all religion and belief backgrounds oppose religious selection in schools, including 68% of Christians. Opposition to religious selection was overwhelming among minority religious groups including 82% of Muslims and Hindus.
  • Just 17% of respondents agree with the statement: "Publicly funded schools should be able to select pupils on the grounds of their religious beliefs".
  • 70% of teachers in England oppose religiously selective admissions, while just 18% support them. 75% of teachers working in non-faith schools oppose religiously selective admissions, 66% of teachers in C of E faith schools and a plurality (41%) of teachers in Catholic schools.
  • In 2012 ComRes found 83% agreed that "faith schools, should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions", including a majority who strongly agreed.

Figures on which schools apply faith-based discrimination are not simple to obtain, because the government does not publish this information (although it does publish information on which schools practise academic selection).

Some estimate 16% of mainstream state school places are subject to religious selection, which is a shocking 1.2 million places in total. This is greater than the number of places at private, single-sex and grammar schools, or places that select by skill or aptitude, combined.

It is thought that most voluntary aided faith schools practise faith-based discrimination. The vast majority of these schools are Catholic.

Despite often rejecting the 'faith schools' label and claiming to be 'schools for everyone', Church of England schools often do discriminate in their admissions. A quarter of Church of England state secondary schools prioritise children from different faiths over children from non-religious families. Only 1 in 8 of dioceses surveyed advise their schools not to engage in faith-based selection. In contrast, 1 in 4 advise them to reserve some places on faith grounds.

In 2021 we found many CofE faith schools employ language which potentially misleads, or downplays the discriminatory admissions policies which occurs in schools

40% of all state-funded faith secondary schools in England discriminate against non-religious families specifically, by giving priority to families who are of any religion over the non-religious. 60% of Catholic state secondary schools discriminate against the nonreligious specifically - significantly more than any other kind of school.

In 2018, data from the Catholic Education Service revealed 14 Catholic secondary schools in England have no children from nonreligious families attending at all. All were in London, with high oversubscription.

Faith-based selection at schools puts less well-off families at a disadvantage.

2016 research by the London School of Economics suggests increasing the number of faith schools could increase social segregation and lower social mobility.

Disadvantaged pupils are under-represented at faith schools, while those with high prior attainment are over-represented. Parents from more affluent backgrounds are more than 80% more likely than average to fake religiosity in order to get into good selective faith schools.

The percentage of faith school pupils eligible for free school meals (a proxy for disadvantage) is below both the national average and the figure for non-faith schools. In 2013, The Fair Admissions Campaign found that Church of England comprehensives whose admissions criteria allow full selection of faith admit 35% fewer children eligible for free school meals.

More recent research by the Sutton Trust published in 2024 concluded that faith schools are among the most socially selective schools in England, with comparatively low numbers of pupils elligible for free school meals.

Finally, both Catholic and CofE schools admit fewer pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) than nonreligious schools.

It's very rare. The UK is one of only four countries in the OECD (the others are Estonia, Israel, and Ireland) where state-funded schools can use religious selection.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has called for an end to religious selection at schools in England.

Yes – depending on the type of school and employment, some faith schools can apply religious discrimination in the hiring, payment and promotion of staff.

Despite discrimination of grounds of religion and belief being unlawful, Equality Act exceptions allow schools with a religious character to require their teaching staff to adhere to a particular religion.

Voluntary controlled religious schools (often Church of England schools) can apply a religious test in appointing, remunerating and promoting one fifth of teaching staff, including the Head Teacher.

In voluntary aided religious schools (often Roman Catholic, but also sometimes Church of England and minority faiths), the governing body employs the staff and may theoretically apply a religious test in appointing, remunerating and promoting all teachers. In addition, all teachers can be disciplined or dismissed for conduct which is 'incompatible with the precepts of the school's religion.

The situation in academies and free schools with a religious character will depend on the school's funding agreement, but generally these will also have the ability to place religious requirements on teaching positions.

We consider the degree of discrimination legally permitted on the grounds of religion and belief against teachers and other school staff is unreasonable and unacceptable.

If some faith schools can maintain a religious ethos with a 20% limit on reserved positions, there can be no justification for the provisions in the Schools Standards and Framework Act which allow schools to use a religious test in appointing, remunerating and promoting all teachers.

However, we don't think any suitably qualified teachers should be blocked from teaching positions in publicly-funded schools on the basis of their beliefs or religious activities.

In England and Wales the relevant statute is the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 Sections 58 and 60, as amended; in Scotland, the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.

Find out more about the rights of employees at different types of schools across the UK.