Religious privilege in schools fosters inequality, NSS tells Ofsted

Posted: Wed, 5th Jun 2024

Ofsted should recognise how faith based admissions may affect school performance, NSS says.

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The privileging of religion in education is "perpetuating unfairness" against children and families who have greatest need of support, the National Secular Society has told the school inspectorate.

Responding Ofsted's 'Big Listen' consultation, the NSS said the perception that faith schools perform better than nonreligious schools can be explained by their "exclusion of children who need the greatest support".

Research published this year by the Sutton Trust found that faith schools are "consistently more socially selective than non-religious schools" because the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) at faith schools is consistently lower than the proportion eligible in their catchment area. FSM eligibility is often used as a measure of pupil disadvantage, because only pupils from low income families are eligible for FSM.

The report found the gap between FSM eligibility at faith schools and their catchment area to be "significantly larger" compared to nonreligious schools.

Last year, research published by the London School of Economics also found faith-based primary schools admit fewer children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) than local authority community primaries. The paper described faith schools as "hubs of relative advantage, seeming disproportionately to serve children from more affluent families and children less likely to have SEND".

And some local authorities report that faith schools in their area "effectively disadvantage" looked after children whose families are not of the school's faith, as a result of faith-based oversubscription criteria.

The NSS said this growing body of evidence showed that "aspects of our education system are working against those most disadvantaged in our society". It urged Ofsted to recognise this during its inspections by considering how discriminatory faith-based admissions may affect school performance.

Independent schools

The NSS urged Ofsted to apply the same inspection standards to all schools, "irrespective of a school's religious character or ethos".

Some Ofsted reports for independent faith schools note that school leaders request inspectors do not ask pupils about aspects of relationships education relating to LGBT people, despite schools having a legal duty to teach about protected characteristics in the Equality Act. Some faith schools do not teach these parts of relationships education as they believe they conflict with their religious beliefs.

The NSS said that Ofsted should "ensure it plays no role in helping schools evade teaching about same-sex relationships" and that it is "vitally important that all children receive the same high standard of education, no matter what kind of school they attend".

Unregistered schools and social care

The NSS said serious safeguarding concerns demanded urgent action on unregistered schools. These schools are left unregistered to avoid regulations and inspections, so they can teach a very narrow, religion-based curriculum without oversight.

In 2022, the government abandoned a bill which included provisions intended to protect children from unregistered schools, such as increased powers of inspection for Ofsted and compulsory 'children not in school' registers. The NSS urged Ofsted to continue to make the case to the next government that such measures remain necessary to tackle unregistered schools.

The NSS also recommended Ofsted ensures that children's social care provided by faith groups is is open to all, irrespective of religious belief, and is free from proselytisation and evangelism. Some groups funded by the Government to provide public services have been documented evangelising to vulnerable service users.

NSS: Faith schools 'perpetuating unfairness'

National Secular Society spokesperson Jack Rivington said: "Education should be an opportunity to improve prospects and outcomes for every child, particularly those who face the greatest disadvantages. Faith schools, which have been shown to perpetuate unfairness against those who need the most support, are incompatible with this principle.

"During its inspections, Ofsted should consider how exclusionary practices such as religiously discriminatory admissions may affect the performance of faith schools. Ofsted says it aims to improve lives by raising standards in education and children's social care. Where religious privilege is obstructing that goal, it should have no qualms in challenging it."

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Tags: Faith schools, LGBT, School admissions, Unregistered schools