Faith Schools Restrict Rather Than Expand Parental Choice

No child should be discriminated against by a faith school – or forced into one through lack of choice
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Faith schools are highly controversial and rarely out of the headlines. The government nevertheless remains keen to enable more of them to be set up. This is largely justified on the basis that such schools create a ‘diversity of provision’ that offers greater opportunity for ‘parental choice’.

New research published this week by the National Secular Society seriously undermines this claim. The Choice Delusion report highlights the ways in which faith schools actually restrict school choice for thousands of families who do not want a faith-based education for their children, or do not share the faith of a particular school in their area. The report reveals that almost three in ten families in England live in areas where most or all of the local primary schools are faith-based.

For most parents, the first preference is their nearest school. But what if that happens to be a faith school? When oversubscribed, schools in England designated with a religious character are often allowed to use faith-based oversubscription criteria to give higher priority in admissions to children of the faith. Unless you can get your local priest or vicar to confirm your regular attendance at church, you’re not getting in.

But in some parts of the country parents are left with little or no choice other than to send their child to a faith-based school. Thousands of families were assigned faith schools against their wishes in England in 2017 alone. As part of its case work the National Secular Society has heard from Christian parents allocated Sikh schools, atheist parents allocated church schools and even a Muslim parent allocated a place for her son in an Orthodox Jewish School. In some cases, appeals have been successful, but this isn’t always the case and some parents have resorted to opting-out of the state sector because of a lack of availability of non-faith-based schools.

Restrictions on choice are most acute in rural areas where a majority of primary schools are faith-based and quite often the only school in the village is run by the Church of England. Even in urban areas around one in four families live in areas with ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ restrictions.

Successive governments’ support for faith-based education has left us in the ridiculous situation whereby a state education system in one of the most secularised nations in the world isn’t able to guarantee parents a religiously neutral education for their children.

The Government hasn’t estimated how many parents are in this situation and frankly, it doesn’t seem to care. Whilst religious freedom arguments are sometimes deployed to defend faith schools, the rights of non-believers seem to be entirely forgotten.

The Church of England is the dominant player in publicly funded faith schools. It claims the schools it runs are “not faith schools for Christians, but church schools for all”. This is disingenuous. Faced with dwindling congregations the Church regards schools as a key to its mission and appears increasingly keen to turn the schools it runs into places of worship. But in a country where just 2% of young adults identify with the Church and seven out of 10 under-24s say they have no religion, the Church’s influence over state education is unjustifiable.

The Catholic Church’s insistence that the government gives it permission to turn away children from non-Catholic families demonstrates that its primary interest is turning pupils into practitioners of the Catholic faith. Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim faith schools have similar motivations.

Tony Blair’s decision to expand faith schools and extend the privilege to minority faiths as part of the ‘school choice’ agenda means the government now funds the religious schools of all these faiths. But rather than being driven by the wishes of individual parents, this agenda is being driven by religious groups wishing to preserve and promote a religious or cultural group identity. As the No More Faith Schools campaign highlights, this approach risks harming social cohesion.

Parents may like the idea of choosing the school they send their child to, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into support for faith schools. The research tells us that a school’s religious character is rarely an important decision criterion for parents. High-performing schools are very popular with parents, but faith schools aren’t. Seventy percent of parents say they would choose a school on the basis of its academic standard; 23% would choose on basis of ethical standards. Just 8% say they would choose on the basis of faith. Just a quarter of people in Britain who might have a school-age child say they would consider a faith school. Given the choice, two-thirds of Muslim parents say they wouldn’t want their children to go to a Muslim state school.

A policy of only funding secular schools wouldn’t unreasonably restrict choice for people of faith. Sure, you wouldn’t have your own state-funded religious schools, but we’ve never provided atheist schools – and nor should we. Community and other non-faith-based schools welcome children of all faith backgrounds and none and, unlike many faith schools, never discriminate on religious grounds in their admissions. Although it is true that such schools would not offer confessional or directive education in religion, this is not a reasonable expectation of the modern state in any case.

To ensure that the greatest number of parents have the greatest amount of choice, the government needs to initiate a shift away from faith-based schooling in favour of secular schools that educate children of all faith and non-faith backgrounds together.

Until that time comes, the government needs to ensure than every parent has reasonable access to a secular school. No child should be discriminated against by a faith school – or forced into one through lack of choice.

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