NSS calls on Labour to “think again” on faith schools

Posted: Tue, 12th Sep 2023

Labour's plan to leave the faith school system unchanged risks perpetuating injustice, unfairness and discrimination, NSS warns.

NSS calls on Labour to “think again” on faith schools

The National Secular Society has urged the Labour Party to re-think its support for faith schools.

In a letter to Shadow Secretary of State for Education Bridget Philipson today, the NSS warned Labour against avoiding "necessary reforms", arguing current arrangements "conflict with human rights, segregate communities, and facilitate discrimination".

The letter followed reports this week that Labour leader Keir Starmer said he "wouldn't tinker" with how faith schools are run, and that a Labour government would be "even more supportive of faith schools" than the current government.

The comments were made during an interview at the Independent Jewish Day School (IJDS), which featured in an NSS report this year into coercive and controlling religious criteria in school admissions policies.

IJDS, a state-funded school, requires families to adhere to religious dietary laws and modesty-based dress codes to be considered under the school's religious admissions policy.

A copy of the report was sent to Philipson at the time of publication.

The NSS urged Labour to reconsider continuing or expanding faith-based education, arguing that it should "seek to transition towards a fully inclusive and secular education system".

Faith-based admissions

Removing equality law exemptions which allow state schools to select pupils based on religion should be a priority for Labour, the NSS argued.

Many children are subject to faith-based discrimination and unable to access their preferred or convenient local state school. Faith-based selection has also been shown to put less well-off families at a disadvantage.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) urged the UK to "guarantee the right of all children" to freedom of expression and religion or belief. This included by "preventing the use of religion as a selection criterion for school admissions in England".

In its letter, the NSS asked whether a future Labour government would commit to meeting the UK's UNCRC obligations by ending religiously selective admissions.

Cautioning Labour not to turn a "blind eye to the negative consequences of religiously segregated schooling", the NSS argued in favour of educating children together "irrespective of their backgrounds", describing it as "vital for a cohesive and inclusive society".

In an "increasingly polarised and divided society", supporting the separation of children along religious, racial and ethnic lines is "deeply misguided", the NSS said.

LGBT equality

The NSS also argued that the presence of faith schools in our education system "enables discrimination against LGBT people", along with the promotion of "inaccurate and harmful perspectives on sexual health".

In its 2018 report 'Unsafe Sex Education', the NSS revealed that many faith schools explicitly teach that same-sex relationships are wrong as part of their Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculums. Some also criticise sex outside of marriage, condemn contraceptives and abortion, and perpetuate taboos around menstruation.

More than three quarters of state-funded secondary faith schools in England teach RSE in "accordance with the tenets of their faith" – which is currently permitted by law.

The NSS argued that the Labour Party's stated commitment to LGBT equality and inclusion could not be reconciled with continuing to allow faith schools to teach RSE "through the prism of homophobic religious dogma".

NSS: 'Labour needs to think again on faith schools'

Stephen Evans, chief executive at the NSS, said: "Keir Starmer's commitment not to "tinker" with how faith schools are run appears to insulate faith schools from necessary reforms to address human rights concerns, discrimination, and unfairness within our schools system.

"Current arrangements around faith schools are set up to serve religious interests, not those of children. If the Labour Party is genuinely committed to equality, social cohesion and LGBT rights, it should seriously reconsider its current position on faith schools."

Image: Rwendland, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tell Labour to think again on faith schools

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer recently stated he "wouldn't tinker" with how faith schools are run, and that Labour would be "even more supportive of faith schools" than the current government.

Join us in calling on Labour to think again on faith schools. Write to your Labour MP or representative today.

Tags: Faith schools, LGBT, School admissions