Scrapping admissions cap signals alarming lurch towards religious privilege

Posted: Tue, 21st May 2024 by Stephen Evans

The decision to scrap the 50% cap on faith-based admissions at free schools is a symptom of growing deference to religious privilege across the political spectrum, warns Stephen Evans.

Ben Molyneux, Shutterstock

The government is planning to abolish the rule requiring faith-based free schools in England to offer half their places without any reference to religion.

This means that for the first time, religious groups will be able to receive 100% state funding for schools with 100% faith-based admissions. Many faith schools, known as voluntary aided (VA) schools, can already select all pupils based of faith. But while the running costs of a VA school are fully state funded, the religious body that runs the school usually owns the land and buildings.

However, the Government's new reforms will secure total taxpayer funding for faith schools that religious leaders can prevent your child from attending.

The policy shift comes at the behest of Catholic bishops who have disingenuously argued that not allowing the schools they run to admit children from exclusively Catholic backgrounds unfairly discriminates against Catholic students. This is untrue – there is no way the 50% cap could result in a child losing a place at a Catholic school because they are raised Catholic.

Faith schools are given so called 'freedoms' to teach their own model of biased religious education and make admissions rules and staffing decisions based on religion. So not only can they select pupils based on their parents' religious activities, but they can also religiously discriminate in employment.

And this means staff stand to lose opportunities not only if they don't share the faith, but also if their lifestyles don't meet the approval of the governing religious body. No matter how competent or inspiring a school leader you might be, if you're in a same sex marriage, you can probably forget it. I've met teachers with aspirations of leading their schools, but their sexuality has disqualified them. It's as heart-rending as it is dehumanising.

Alarmingly, a recent leader in the Times welcomed the removal of the cap on faith-based admission, arguing that religious and secular schools alike should enjoy the autonomy to operate according to their own principles.

The problem with this is, to accommodate the principles of faith schools, we must abandon equality and tolerate discrimination.

Nobody would condone a school's 'principles' involving discrimination based on race. We should find it no more acceptable that children are segregated from their peers on the grounds of their parents' religious activities.

Almost fifteen years since the Equality Act came into force, religion's hold over education policy means our school system remains a hotbed of religious discrimination. And as Britain grows more religiously and ethnically diverse, the potential of faith-based education to exacerbate division is obvious. Indeed, it's already the case that faith schools are less ethnically diverse and admit fewer children from poorer backgrounds, children in care and children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Unfortunately, there's little chance of a potential Labour administration taking a different approach. The Opposition has been silent on the Government's plans to relax religious admissions rules. In fact, Keir Starmer has said a Labour government would be "even more supportive of faith schools" than the current government.

This is concerning, because faith groups are increasingly seeking to influence education policy to align it with their teachings.

A recent case in point is a coalition of Muslim organisation calling themselves 'The Muslim Vote'. They've issued list of "demands" that Labour must meet to "rebuild trust" with Muslim voters, after the party's stance on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has seen them lose support. One of their demands is new guidance clarifying that Muslims are allowed to pray at school. This attempts to undermine the recent judgment concerning Michaela Community School, where the court supported the right of the school to ban religious rituals in pursuance of the school's "robust yet respectful" secular ethos.

Labour shouldn't indulge these demands. 'The Muslim Vote', like other so called 'community leaders', represent themselves, not Muslim voters. As Hardeep Singh and Rakib Ehsan have recently pointed out, British Muslims are not a monolithic bloc. Besides, abandoning universalism to pander to this kind sectarianism would be dangerous and divisive.

Unfortunately, the modern Left tends not a reliable defender of secularist principles. The way Labour uncritically adopted the contentious 'Islamophobia' definition, despite clear free speech concerns, is an example of that.

The pressure to meet religious demands doesn't begin and end with schools. Faith groups are increasingly looking to provide public services. With rising demands on public health, social care and community inclusion, Government and local authorities are looking to faith-based organisations to paper over the cracks created by underinvestment and diminishing public finances. Keir Starmer has launched a 'Faith Champions Network' to promote faith groups in supporting their communities. Stephen Timms, Labour's evangelical faith envoy, rejoiced: "Far from being a problem, religious conviction is taking on a new, valuable role".

While charities and voluntary organisations, including religious ones, can play a supporting role in delivering services to support local communities, religious organisations should be expected to do so on a secular basis – and be subject to the same duty to uphold equality as everybody else. No discrimination, no proselytising. The willingness of politicians to roll over so easily to religious demands and expand faith schools' 'freedoms' doesn't bode well.

Secular principles shouldn't be sacrificed to meet the unreasonable demands of faith groups. Whether it's Catholic bishops demanding the right to discriminate in school admissions, ultra-orthodox rabbis demanding the right to under educate children, or fundamentalist Muslims demanding the right to disregard LGBT-inclusive relationships and sex education, the secular state should stand firm.

Regrettably, we don't yet have a secular state. But as Britain becomes increasingly nonreligious and religiously diverse, the time has come to end religious privilege, not extend it. Secular principles should be upheld to ensure equality and human rights do no lose out to religious demands. And this should begin with the Government rethinking its plans to scrap the 50% cap.

Tags: Faith schools, Public services, School admissions