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Faith school admissions benefit affluent families and are too complex says new study

Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University

Some faith schools inherently favour both more strictly religious families and more privileged families through the use of overly complicated and burdensome admissions policies, a new study has found. The research, conducted by Professors Mairi Levitt and Linda Woodhead at Lancaster University, used Leicester’s diverse school system to examine the issues with the current school admissions system in the UK. The research found that selection requirements enforced by some faith schools are overly complex, and that some faith-based criteria require the commitment of time and/or money that not all families are in a position to provide.

Humanists UK, whose 2015 report An Unholy Mess revealed that virtually every religiously selective state faith school in England was breaking admissions law in some way, stated that this latest research supports its calls for wholesale reform of the school admissions system.

The new report, entitled Choosing a faith school in Leicester: admissions criteria, diversity and choice, sets out ‘to reflect on the claim that faith schooling offers more and better choice and quality’, among other objectives. Leicester was chosen both for its size and for its diversity, given that it is home to a range of different religious and non-religious communities as well as a number of different types of school.

The report’s key findings and conclusions include:

  • ‘Not only are [religious] criteria complex and difficult to fulfil in the case of several of the faith schools – both Church and other faith – there is little consistency between schools.’
  • In some circumstances, religious selection ‘also allows a degree of socio-economic selection, with more affluent parents benefitting’.
  • While all schools, including faith schools, are required to prioritise children in care or care leavers in their admissions, some faith schools ‘subordinate this to faith criteria’.
  • Non-religious families, ‘especially those from poorer backgrounds’, are disproportionately and negatively impacted by the presence of faith schools, a ‘problem [that] is unlikely to go away’ given the steady rise in those identifying as non-religious.

Reacting to the findings, Professor Woodhead said: ‘The study reveals a labyrinthine system of selection criteria, and a mixed picture regarding the educational outcomes of faith schools relative to other state schools… Even when they are obliged by law to take a proportion of children who do not share the faith, [faith school] selection criteria are so complex and demanding that it is unlikely that any would apply.’

Humanists UK’s landmark report An Unholy Mess revealed ‘near-universal noncompliance’ with the School Admissions Code by religiously selective state secondary schools. The report, which detailed the rulings of the Schools Adjudicator on the admission arrangements of a sample of such schools, found violations in virtually every case, ranging from unlawful requirements to financially support churches and other places of worship, to breaches of the Equality Act 2010 indirectly discriminating on the basis of race and/or gender.

Humanists UK’s Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman commented, ‘Once again the evidence is clear that state-funded faith schools are abusing their freedom to religiously select in order to turn away all but the most religious, most affluent families in society. This is discriminatory, unfair, and divisive, and it is an entirely inappropriate practice for public, taxpayer-funded institutions to be engaged in.

‘As we have recommended repeatedly in the past, the Government must look urgently at the reform of the admissions system, withdrawing the right of state faith schools to religiously discriminate in their admissions policies at all and guaranteeing equal access for all to their local schools.’


For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman on or 0207 324 3078.

Read the full report:…/07/Choosing-a-faith-school-in-Leicester-final-MS.pdf

Read Humanists UK’s previous news item ‘An Unholy Mess: new report reveals near-universal non-compliance with the School Admissions Code among religiously selective state schools in England’:

Read more about Humanists UK’s work on faith schools:

At Humanists UK, we want a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work helps people be happier and more fulfilled, and by bringing non-religious people together we help them develop their own views and an understanding of the world around them.

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