The state must stop faith schools behaving like cults

Posted: Tue, 7th Mar 2023 by Jack Rivington

The state must stop faith schools behaving like cults

New research by the NSS has found some state funded faith schools' admissions policies are so extreme they appear to breach human rights. Jack Rivington calls for urgent reform in the education system to prevent state endorsement of regressive religious practices.

Is it right for a state school to control how their students' families dress, whether they can use the internet, what they can eat, and when they have sex?

As it stands, our government seems to think that it is. In a new report, the National Secular Society has revealed how some faith schools are insisting applicants follow regressive aspects of religious doctrine in order to access a place for their children – and are getting the green light from the state to do so.

In the most concerning cases, some schools insist that families follow so-called 'family purity laws', an aspect of Orthodox Judaism which regulates when a married couple may have sexual intercourse according to the stages of the menstrual cycle. The practice can require women to provide evidence of their vaginal discharge to a Rabbi, and to 'cleanse' themselves in a ritual bathing process following menstruation.

Many of the schools in our study frequently insist upon 'modest dress' for both parents and children, with a particular focus on the clothing of women and girls. Others demand that children only read books approved by the school, and do not access the internet. Adherence to religious dietary practices is also frequently required. Most of the schools stipulate that parents and students obey these rules not only at school, but at all times.

These rules are incompatible with human rights: the right to a family and private life; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; to freedom of expression; and to an education. The particular emphasis placed on women's 'modesty' also undermines sexual equality.

How have schools been allowed to get away with imposing such rules?

School admissions and coercive control

These requirements are found in the schools' admissions policies, which set out the process for allocating places when a school is oversubscribed. In such circumstances, exemptions from equality law allow faith schools to prioritise applicants according to their religiosity. Whilst this is normally assessed on the basis of criteria such as baptism status or church attendance, our report demonstrates that the current system is allowing schools to push criteria to extremes.

The admissions policy of a school must comply with the school admissions code, which requires oversubscription criteria to be "reasonable, clear, objective, procedurally fair, and comply with all relevant legislation, including equalities legislation". Additionally, the policy must not unfairly disadvantage children from a "particular social or racial group", nor those with a disability or special educational need.

Concerningly, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator – the body responsible for reviewing complaints regarding school admissions policies – has, when reviewing formal objections to religious criteria, found several admissions policies examined in the report to be acceptable. This shows that, in effect, the OSA considers such policies to be compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010, because the code specifies admissions policies must comply with this legislation. The OSA decisions also demonstrate that it considers the policies to be to be 'reasonable' – a further requirement under the admissions code.

What possible understanding of 'reasonable' can consider the sexual behaviour of parents legitimate grounds on which to assess applications for places at a school? That the OSA has found no fault with such criteria, either on the basis of reasonableness or in relation to human rights, demonstrates a serious failure in the current system which requires immediate review.

The report's consideration of 'coercive control', which is gaining attention as part of increased focus on the role religion can play in abuse, makes the case for urgent government action even clearer.

Last year, 'anti-cult' watchdog Family Survival Trust (FST) published a report on coercive control in UK religious groups. The report drew parallels between coercive behaviour as defined by the Home Office in connection with domestic abuse, and coercive behaviour observed in high control religious groups. Disturbingly, many of the behaviours identified by the FST are also readily identifiable within the admissions policies of some state-funded faith schools.

The practices of high control religious groups and the policies of the schools examined by our report bear more than a passing resemblance. Based on government guidance, if an individual exhibited the behaviours of these schools within the context of an interpersonal relationship, there is a significant possibility they would be committing a criminal offence. Whilst such practices do not have the same legal status within an organisational context, we should regard them with similar ethical disapproval. That the UK education system is facilitating such practices is therefore deeply alarming.

The school admissions code is enabling schools to impose religious criteria which are entirely unreasonable in their content, coercive and controlling in nature, and in breach of human rights. It is therefore unfit for purpose. In our report, we recommend a review and update of the code as a matter of urgency in order to prohibit criteria which undermine human rights or amount to coercive control. A new code should also provide more detailed guidance to the OSA on how to interpret and apply terms such as "reasonable".

Fundamentally, such issues occur because of the exemption given to all faith schools permitting religious discrimination in their admissions. Without very specific prohibitions, the legitimacy of any religious criteria facilitates the inclusion of all religious criteria. As long as we grant religion an undue influence in UK education, problems of this kind will persist.

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Tags: Faith schools