Faith schools coercing families with ‘cultish’ practices, NSS finds

Posted: Mon, 27th Feb 2023

Faith schools coercing families with ‘cultish’ practices, NSS finds

The National Secular Society has found faith schools are trying to control families' private lives, including parents' sex lives, through admissions policies.

A new NSS report reveals how 14 state-funded faith schools may be breaching human rights via their pupil admissions policies.

The report sets out how religious requirements in the oversubscription criteria of the schools' policies are being used to impose extreme religious ideology on families.

Several schools required applicants to follow Jewish 'purity laws' regarding sex. These rules concern when a married couple may have sexual intercourse or come into physical contact with one another, according to the timings of the woman's menstrual cycle.

The practice can also require women to submit evidence of their vaginal discharge to religious authorities in order to determine their 'purity' status, and consequently whether they are permitted to have sex or not.

Other practices required by schools included:

  • Children having no access to the internet or television, and for children to be forbidden from visiting the cinema or theatre.
  • That parents and children follow strict dress codes at all times, including outside of school, such as 'modest' dress for women and girls.
  • Following a halal diet and fasting during Ramadan.

The report argues such rules are not compliant with the European Convention of Human Rights.

They also resemble rules imposed by high-control religious groups on their members, as identified by 'cult' watchdog The Family Survival Trust. Through these religious requirements, schools are exhibiting coercive and controlling behaviour, the NSS said.

'Coercive control' can be a criminal offence within the context of an interpersonal relationship.

School admissions procedures

Schools' oversubscription criteria are used to decide which applicants get a place when there are more applications than places available.

Most types of faith schools can prioritise applicants who share the religion of the school in their oversubscription criteria. Exemptions to equality legislation permit faith schools to discriminate against people on the basis of religion or belief in this way.

Applicants' religious beliefs are usually assessed via baptism status or their attendance at a place of worship.

Admissions policies must follow the School Admissions Code, which requires that oversubscription criteria are "reasonable, clear, objective, [and] procedurally fair" and compliant with "all relevant legislation, including equalities legislation".

Despite these requirements, several complaints from members of the public regarding extreme religious oversubscription criteria have been unsuccessful. The Office of the Schools Adjudicator, which determines whether a school's admissions policy complies with the code, has repeatedly decided not to uphold complaints against policies which include regressive religious practices.

The NSS's report recommends that the Schools Admissions Code be updated to specifically prohibit oversubscription criteria which breach human rights, and that further guidance is provided to the OSA regarding the code's enforcement and application.

It also recommends a review of equality act exemptions for faith schools.

NSS: Imposition of "cult-like" rules is "deeply alarming"

NSS campaigns officer Jack Rivington said: "Our report demonstrates how the privilege and influence granted to religion in our education system enables practices which are intrusive and harmful to children and families, and which run contrary to human rights.

"It is deeply alarming that our taxes are being used to fund schools which impose cult-like rules on children and their families, and that the government body responsible for regulating school admissions policies has been incapable of curbing these practices.

"No school should be able to dictate the sex lives, clothing, internet access or diets of families, especially in the privacy of their own homes.

"But as long as discriminatory faith-based admissions are permitted, issues of the kind highlighted in our report will persist. The exemptions in equality law for faith schools, in addition to guidance on acceptable admissions policies, should therefore be examined as a matter of urgency".

The NSS has shared its findings with schools minister Nick Gibb and education select committee chair Robin Walker.


  • Of the schools examined in the report, 12 have an Orthodox Jewish religious character and 2 have an Islamic religious character.
  • All of the schools examined by the report are voluntary aided, which means the local authority funds all the school running costs and 90% of the building costs (in theory the religious body pays for 10% of the building costs).

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Tags: Faith schools, School admissions