The Education Bill was debated in the House of Lords yesterday, and humanist peers argued for abolishing English state schools’ requirement to hold a daily act of collective worship of a broadly Christian character, and for ending the ability of English ‘faith’ schools to discriminate in admissions. However, concerns were dismissed by the Government, who on collective worship argued that the current system was ‘sufficiently flexible’ and referred to the country’s ‘Christian heritage’; and that ‘faith schools should be able to teach according to the tenets of their faith and to have admissions policies that reflect that ethos.’
Currently, all state-funded schools are required to hold a daily act of collective worship. This is usually of a broadly Christian character, though could be of some other faith. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) argued that collective worship should be abolished and replaced with inclusive assemblies, which aim to provide “spiritual, moral, social and cultural education”. Furthermore, if collective worship is to continue, then it should be the right of pupils to be able to opt themselves out of collective worship, instead the right of their parents.
About 2/3 of state-funded ‘faith’ schools, or 20% of all state schools, can religiously discriminate in admissions policies in favour of pupils whose parents share the faith of the school. Baroness Massey of Darwen moved three amendments to remove this right from our schools, or at least to ensure that when voluntary controlled ‘faith’ schools (most of which can’t discriminate in this way) convert to Academies, they cannot increase the religious selection in their admissions.
Baroness Massey argued, ‘Discrimination by faith schools can cause segregation along both religious and socio-economic lines…faith schools that are their own admission authorities are 10 times more likely to be highly unrepresentative of their surrounding area than faith schools where the local authority is the admission authority. Separating children by religion, class and ethnicity is totally opposed to the aim of social cohesion. In addition, voluntary aided faith schools have, on average, 50 per cent fewer pupils requiring free school meals than community schools. Pupils starting at faith schools are also, on average, more academically able than pupils starting at inclusive schools. That is because faith schools’ selection criteria mean that they usually-not always, but usually-take fewer deprived children and more than their fair share of children of ambitious and wealthier parents.’
BHA Faith Schools Campaigns Officer Richy Thompson commented, ‘Collective worship and ‘faith’-based admissions criteria are two of the most important areas of our schools-related work. We receive letters from parents every day, concerned about the affect of ‘faith’ school admissions on their choice of schools, or weighing up the negative psychological impact of collective worship on their children versus the negative social impact of opting their children out.
‘We believe collective worship is one of the least disputable examples of discrimination against the non-religious, which is why we campaigned earlier this year to get the law repealed. And religious admissions are one of the worst, having a major impact on the lives of children who find themselves the victims of England’s unfair system. We intend to bring fresh amendments on both these areas when the Education Bill reaches its Report Stage.’
For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson on 020 7462 4993.
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.