NSS tells DfE: faith selection in schools must be ended, not extended

Posted: Tue, 18th Jun 2024

NSS strongly opposes plans to scrap 50% cap on faith-based admissions at free schools in response to Government consultation.

NSS tells DfE: faith selection in schools must be ended, not extended

Government plans to abolish restrictions on faith-based admissions at free schools are "divisive, dangerous and should be abandoned", the National Secular Society has said.

In response to the Department for Education's consultation on abolishing the 50% faith admissions cap for new and existing free schools, the NSS said the move would "prove disastrous for social cohesion" and "entrench inequality, unfairness and segregation in our school system".

Under the 50% cap, free schools with a religious character may select up to 50% of pupils based on religion when oversubscribed. The remaining 50% must be selected without reference to faith. Voluntary aided faith schools are already permitted to select 100% of their admissions based on religion when oversubscribed.

The Conservative Party confirmed in its General Election manifesto it would proceed with scrapping the cap, despite the manifesto also saying "discrimination based on religion is unacceptable".

The Labour Party, which is predicted to win a majority at the General Election, did not mention faith schools in its manifesto. Last year Keir Starmer said Labour would be "even more supportive" of faith schools than the Conservatives.

Plans to scrap the cap "in direct conflict" with UN recommendations

The NSS pointed out the consultation says the 50% cap was introduced to "foster inclusivity" but admits "the evidence suggests that this 50% faith admissions cap does not achieve inclusivity". It does not say how removing the cap entirely will help. Therefore, removing the cap "can only make the situation worse," the NSS said.

The consultation documents say the proposals underpin the government's focus on "providing the best education for children, including for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and with special educational needs".

But the NSS said the government has ignored recent findings that faith schools are more socially selective, create barriers for looked-after and previously looked-after children, and admit fewer pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The NSS highlighted that Government's proposals are "in direct conflict" with the 2023 recommendation from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child that the UK should prevent "the use of religion as a selection criterion for school admissions in England".

The NSS co-signed an open letter in April, along with over 30 other organisations and individuals, calling on the Government to keep the cap.

In May the NSS uncovered serious conflict of interest concerns regarding donations the Catholic Church made to the Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan before the proposal was announced. The Catholic Church has heavily lobbied the Government to scrap the 50% cap.

Allowing faith-based special schools "raises serious ethical concerns"

The government also plans to let faith groups open academies with a religious character for children with SEND ('special academies'). The NSS said giving these schools more freedom to proselytise "the most vulnerable and impressionable children in our society" raises "serious ethical concerns".

The consultation says the policy "would encourage high quality faith school providers with a track record of high performance" to establish new special academies and free schools. But the NSS said the Catholic Church, the Church of England and many other religious institutions have "an appalling record on safeguarding", as highlighted by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

The NSS said it is "irresponsible to let institutions with such an atrocious track record on safeguarding" run schools for the most vulnerable children in society.

The consultation asks how the proposals on the 50% cap and special academies would impact those who share a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. The NSS said it would have a particularly negative impact on families with no religion or belonging to minority religions, children with disabilities, families from minority ethnic backgrounds, and LGBT pupils and parents.

NSS: Faith-based selection "unfair, undemocratic and unequal"

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "In such a diverse, pluralistic society, it is more important than ever to bring families of all religions and none together, to foster community cohesion and tolerance.

"We therefore need to move away from an education system which allows discrimination based on religion. But these proposals will do the exact opposite.

"It is inherently unfair, undemocratic and unequal for children to be prioritised because of their family's religion at publicly-funded schools. It goes against fundamental British values of individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs.

"Whichever party wins the next election, the next government should reject these plans and work instead to end religious selection at our schools - not increase it."

The consultation closes on Thursday. The NSS has guidance on the consultation here.

Save the 50% cap on faith school admissions

The government is planning on scrapping the 50% cap on faith-based admissions at free schools. This will lead to a new wave of discriminatory faith schools.

Join us in calling on the government to keep the 50% cap.

Tags: Faith schools, School admissions