Government admits Academies Bill could lead to more religious discrimination as MPs defend inclusive community schools

MPs concerned that the Academies and ‘free schools’ programme will entrench religious discrimination in the schools system were offered little reassurance by the government yesterday as the Academies Bill entered its committee stage. The Bill is likely to receive royal assent before parliamentary recess begins on July 27th.

Amendments tabled by Dr Julian Huppert MP, vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, would have prevented or restricted religious discrimination in the new Academies’ admissions policies. Dr Huppert said ‘Many state-funded ‘faith schools’ use privileges to have highly selective admissions criteria, giving preference to the children of parents with particular beliefs… Separating children by religion, class and ethnicity is totally antithetical to the aims of social cohesion.’

Speaking in support of the amendments, Karen Buck MP asked why ‘across the piece and on average, faith schools have an intake that is substantially less deprived than maintained schools’.

In response, schools minister Nick Gibb confirmed that the government will allow existing ‘faith schools’ to continue operating discriminatory admissions policies when they become Academies, while refusing to protect the inclusive nature of community schools. Mr Gibb also confirmed that existing ‘faith schools’ which do not currently discriminate could increase the proportion of faith places after becoming Academies. Mr Gibb defended such discrimination by saying that many ‘faith schools’ ‘maintain their strong religious ethos by ensuring that a significant proportion of their children are faith adherents’.

Responding to Mr Gibb, David Ward MP said ‘Frankly, to hear people talk about the special ethos of faith schools makes me quite angry, because it is a slap in the face for all those other non-faith schools that have a fabulous ethos, are loving and caring, and provide a good education for children.’

Concerns were also raised about the restrictive curriculum that could be taught in new ‘faith Academies’. Caroline Lucas MP said ‘there will be no requirement on academies to teach evolution, and the Government do not even appear to have plans to prevent the teaching of creationism in academies.’

Speaking in support of an opposition amendment which would have made PSHE compulsory in Academies, Dr Lucas went on to say ‘The British Humanist Association has asked, legitimately, whether a new, state-funded, Catholic academy would be allowed not to teach sexual reproduction in biology lessons, let alone wider and more objective sex and relationships education. Again, as far as we can see, nothing in the new, deregulated system proposed by the Bill would seem to prohibit that from happening. ‘

BHA head of public affairs Naomi Phillips said:

‘The reality is that new religious Academies will be able to discriminate against children on religious grounds, excluding those of the ‘wrong’ or no religion. It will prevent many existing ‘faith schools’ from ever becoming inclusive and could lead to some discriminating in admissions when they didn’t before. By freeing these new ‘faith Academies’ from the national curriculum, the Bill could also expose children to extreme religious views, including creationism.’

‘The majority of the public are concerned about the influence of religious groups in our schools, but the Government has simply refused to address their concerns. It has rushed through this legislation without proper scrutiny and in doing so risks permanently entrenching religious discrimination and privilege in our schools system. It will be parents, teachers and children themselves who will be left to pick up the pieces.’

Notes

Read the full text of the debate

Read the BHA briefing on the Commons amendments to the Academies Bill

For further comment or information, contact Naomi Phillips at naomi@humanism.org.uk or on 020 7079 3585.

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