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Humanists UK responds to pro-faith schools Sunday Times letters

Two letters were published in the Sunday Times this week, responding to one Humanists UK co-organised the week before, which defended continuing religious discrimination by state schools. The first of the two responses was by Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, and peers Lord Pickles, Lord Polak, and Baroness Altmann. The second was by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

The letter which Humanists UK co-organised with the Accord Coalition was signed by over 180 politicians, academics, religious leaders, and humanists, and urged the Government to give up on plans to open new 100% selective religious schools.

In their response, Halfon, Pickles, Polak, and Altmann write:

At a time of polarisation across society, it is imperative that we promote acceptance for all. Critics assume faith schools work against this ideal. The opposite is true. Many community schools serve a far smaller catchment area than faith schools, meaning they are often less diverse and may educate a narrower socioeconomic cohort.

This is wrong. It is true that religious selection means that faith schools often serve a geographically larger catchment area than other schools. But this doesn’t mean that faith schools are more diverse – in fact they are not.

The evidence is very clear that faith schools are socially selective, because their religious admissions policies enable them to skim the richest pupils from their areas while the rest fail to meet their more complex admissions criteria. Overall, comprehensive secondaries with no religious character admit 5% more pupils eligible for free school meals than live in their local areas. But comprehensive Church of England secondaries admit 15% fewer; Roman Catholic secondaries 28% fewer; Jewish secondaries 63% fewer; and Muslim secondaries 29% fewer.

Similarly religious admissions policies also segregate along ethnic lines. Catholic schools take 4.4 percentage points fewer Asian pupils than would be expected given their local areas. And that is to say nothing of the religious segregation that is inherent to the exercise.

Though purporting to promote tolerance, the campaign by Humanists UK is in fact aimed at limiting access to state-funded education for parents of faith.

This is an ad hominem attack on Humanists UK – one which conveniently ignores the fact that the letter was signed by a mix of over 180 different religious and non-religious figures. The letter was co-organised with the Accord Coalition, which brings together religious and non-religious groups to campaign against faith-based discrimination in schools. Around 40 high-profile religious leaders and spokespeople put their name to the letter.

The Chief Rabbi, in his response, writes:

The belief that faith schools should be required to accommodate a variety of traditions within a single educational setting appears to be based on the misconception that “contact” with those of other backgrounds eliminates prejudice. It is the values we teach our children that determine how responsibly they interact with the rest of society.

This response fails to engage with the substance of the letter – and argues instead with a straw man, setting up a false dichotomy between two different positions. In any case, the Chief Rabbi is wrong to dismiss the benefits of mixed schools. Even the Department for Education on some levels knows this. In 2017 it published research showing that ‘Mixed schools do result in more social mixing between ethnic groups over time, and mixing is reliably associated with more positive views of the outgroup.’ A merger of two ethnically segregated schools in Oldham was found to mean that ‘over a four-year period, intergroup anxiety significant decreased, and liking and outgroup contact significantly increased for both Asian-British and White British pupils.’ It is not enough to say one’s religious education is sufficient to promote tolerance and understanding, while supporting policies – such as religious selection in schools – that fundamentally run counter to those aims.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson added:

‘When the Government originally decided not to open up 100% selection in free schools after all, it did so because it accepted it had lost the argument on the impact of faith-based segregation in schools. All the evidence showed then, as it does now, that religious segregation in schools harms social mobility and promotes segregation by ethnicity.

‘The Government may have found a new route to introduce fully segregated schools, but this doesn’t change the underlying facts. We’d encourage these five individuals to pay heed to the harms caused by religious segregation in schools, rather than indulge in ad hominem or straw man attacks on faith-based admissions’ critics.’


For more information, contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or on 07815 589636.

Read the original letter:

Read Sunday’s responses:

For more information about our faith schools campaign work, visit

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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