14/08/2014 16:57 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Schools And Religion: Why I'm Losing Faith In The Education System

Christian assembly in an Anglican school in south London

Recently I was unexpectedly plunged into the terrifying world of researching primary schools.

My husband and I have made a decision to leave London and relocate to Leeds in order to get a foot on the property ladder and a better quality of life for our family. So, as we will be applying for a primary school place for our son in two years' time, we decided to do some preliminary investigation into the schools on offer in the area.

I didn't think I'd be the sort of parent to get caught up in the politics of catchment areas and Ofsted reports – not for a primary school. We would find somewhere nice to live and send our son to a local school - as long as the place was safe, caring and had a decent ethos and effective teaching methods. Simple.

I'm not interested in fast-tracking my son's development or safeguarding his place at Oxford. I just want him to stay safe, enjoy and engage with his education – with some encouragement from us – and follow a path that makes him happy.

I don't have unrealistic expectations about him going to the 'best' primary school in the city or even one with an 'Outstanding' Ofsted rating. 'Good' with a couple of 'Outstanding' areas would be nice, of course, but essentially just one that feels right.

What I do expect is my son – and every other child in this country – to be given a fair chance of attending any of the state-funded schools in his local area, without discrimination and irrespective of religion and cultural beliefs. But it turns out this isn't possible.


In every area we researched, there were a disproportionately high number of faith schools, significantly limiting the choices open to families who, like us, do not adhere to a particular faith – or who wish to encourage their child to choose his own path by learning about all religions and cultures, irrespective of our own personal beliefs.


Further investigation revealed that this scenario was by no means unique to Leeds. A freedom of information request by the Guardian revealed that even before the introduction of the Coalition's free school system, as many as 30 of pupils were on free school meals compared to 48.7 fewer children entitled to free schools meals than would be expected if they reflected their local communities, whereas community schools admitted 10% more. And the evidence suggests the more religiously selective a faith school, the more pronounced the socio-economical disparity.

Last year, the group, which includes the
British Humanist Association and the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education also warned of the damaging effect a faith-based admission system can have on communities.

"It is incredibly unfair that children are unable to get into a local school because their parents are not of the right religion or have no religion," Pavan Dhaliwal of the BHA told the BBC.

"In a healthy society children should be able to interact with each other regardless of their background. Segregation, racial or religious, causes distrust and disharmony," he added.

Another depressing symptom of this skewed system is the preponderance of parents faking a faith in order to get their child into the best school.

About three years ago, before I became a parent, some good friends mentioned over dinner that they had started going to church. My initial reaction was to giggle. I don't normally laugh in the face of Christians but I knew they weren't in the least bit religious so I thought this must be part of an elaborate joke and waited for the punch line.

But there was no punch line. They were serious. Sheepishly, they admitted they were sacrificing their Sunday mornings and feigning interest in Christianity in order to get their son into a decent primary school.

I was confused and if I'm honest, a bit disappointed. It seemed like a drastic measure, not to mention a dishonest one.

It's one thing to send your child to a faith school as one of their non-practising contingent but to sacrifice your integrity in order to cheat the system. Is this what it has come to?

Last week, the Republic of Ireland's Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, called for the law to be changed so state funded faith schools are no longer able to discriminate in their admissions policy against children on faith grounds.

She argues: ''... children should not have preferential access to publicly funded education on the basis of their religion"

I'd add to that, we're not even talking about the faith of these children – we're talking about the faith of their parents. An overhaul of the admissions policy of faith schools would certainly be a huge step forward but I question whether state-funded faith schools that teach a biased curriculum should exist at all.

What do you think?

More on Parentdish: My child goes to a faith school - but I'm not religious