‘Faith’ schools

Take ActionTake Action! Following on from recent events in Birmingham, debates about the place of ‘faith’ schools in the English state school system have gone up the political agenda. We think this is a good opportunity for individuals to write to their MPs to let them know their views. We’ve provided an online service through which it’s possible to do this.

Around a third of all state-funded schools are schools ‘with a religious character’ – the legal term for ‘faith’ schools. This number has grown in recent years as successive governments have increased the influence of religious groups in the state-funded education system.

We aim for a secular state guaranteeing human rights, with no privilege or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, and so we campaign against ‘faith’ schools, and for an inclusive, secular schools system, where children and young people of all different backgrounds and beliefs can learn with and from each other. We challenge ‘faith’ schools’ admissions, employment and curriculum policies, as well as the privileged processes by which new ‘faith’ schools continue to open.

The BHA maintains a table describing the types of ‘faith’ school and explaining their privileges and exemptions, as well as comprehensive annual data on how many of each of these types of school there are.

You can help us by being alert to proposals for new ‘faith’ schools in your area, challenging them when they arise, and working to make existing ‘faith’ schools more inclusive in their admissions and other policies.

In depth

Parents have an explicit right in the European Convention of Human Rights to bring up their children in the religion or belief of their choice without interference from the state. However, they do not have a right to state funding for confessional religious teaching or ‘faith’ schools.

We do not think that state schools should be allowed to choose pupils on the basis of religion, discriminating in access to a public service that should be open to all. We don’t think that state schools should be free to select teachers and other staff, or to select governors, according to their religion. We are concerned that the proliferation of state-funded religious schools will make for a more segregated future, especially as religions whose believers tend to come from particular ethnic groups gain more state-funded schools. When studies show that religious selection for pupils results, deliberately or otherwise, also in socio-economic selection, we think the social case against religious schools is strong.

We want to see an end to the proliferation of state-funded ‘faith’ schools. We want a progressive withdrawal of their privileges and exemptions so that religious schools are eventually absorbed back into the secular schools sector, becoming inclusive schools for all the community.

Many ‘faith’ schools are their own admissions authorities, which means they can give preference to children from families that share their religion, or those who are otherwise religious, over those who are not. Not only does this discriminate against pupils of the ‘wrong’ or no religion and infringe their rights by assuming their beliefs are identical to their parents’: it also leads to segregation along religious and socio-economic lines – ‘faith’ school populations are often far from representative of their local communities – for example, they admit far fewer children eligible for free school meals.

‘Faith’ schools are also allowed to discriminate to varying extents in their recruitment and employment policies. Applicants can be rejected and staff barred from promotion if they are not of the ‘right’ religion, or of no religion. In some schools staff can even be dismissed if their behaviour outside school is deemed ‘incompatible’ with the school’s religion. One result is that non-religious teachers find that their career prospects are significantly reduced.

‘Faith’ schools are also uniquely privileged in law in school organisation – being able to routinely open outside of competition with other proposals, ‘by the back door’, as well as having a privileged position in discussions around school closures and amalgamations. This has been true for a number of years, but is now worse than ever.

We are also concerned with the curricula of religious schools. Some (including the majority of secondary ‘faith’ schools) are permitted to teach their own syllabus of Religious Education (RE), unlike community schools which must follow a locally agreed syllabus. The teaching of RE in these schools is not specifically inspected by Ofsted, instead being inspected by someone chosen by the governors (which typically means the diocese). It is often confessional in nature, with the aim of instructing children in the doctrine and practices of a particular religion. RE in such schools does not have to cover other religions and almost certainly fails to give a fair account of non-religious views. Ethical issues such as abortion or assisted dying are often approached from an explicitly religious perspective, with all the potential for misinformation that this entails. While there are many problems with locally agreed RE syllabuses, they do at least cover a range of religions and most now include the study of non-religious beliefs such as Humanism.

Because Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) is not a statutory subject, ‘faith’ schools are free to teach it from a religious perspective. We are particularly concerned that the sex and relationships components – if they are covered at all – may be taught in ways that are homophobic, gender discriminatory or that otherwise violate principles of human rights, or are otherwise inadequate (for example teaching abstinence-only education instead of teaching about contraception and abortion) or fail to deliver a broad relationships education.

Concerns about the teaching of creationism, when they arise, also typically do so within ‘faith’ schools. We do not think creationism or intelligent design should be taught as scientific theories, because they are not.

What we’ve been doing

We have continually challenged discrimination by religious schools in admissions, employment and school organisation. In March 2012, we supported research by The Guardian showing for the first time that ‘faith’ schools are socio-economically selective, even when compared to other schools in their area. In April, we published research of our own showing that two-thirds of state-maintained ‘faith’ schools have been opening outside of competition, by the back door – whereas 5 out of 6 other schools have been opening through competition.

We have introduced numerous amendments to education bills to reform the law around religious schools. Most recently, during the passage of the Education Act 2011, we worked with peers to introduce amendments on admissions, school organisation and employment. In 2011 and 2012, we also responded to the recent UK and Welsh Government consultations on school admissions; the Welsh Government’s consultation on the school organisation code; and the Labour Party’s consultation on the ‘middle tier’.

We have also made a number of legal challenges to the continuing presence and role of ‘faith’ schools. In November 2012 we took a (disappointingly unsuccessful) judicial review of the decision to open two highly discriminatory Catholic schools in Richmond-upon-Thames. In July 2012, we triggered a European Commission investigation into employment laws for UK ‘faith’ schools. In January 2013, we won an Information Tribunal case against the UK Government over its refusal to publish a list of the names, locations and religions of groups applying to set up Free Schools – although we are in an ongoing battle to see the implications of this ruling fully adhered to. And we have an ongoing case at the Office of the Schools Adjudicator about the London Oratory School’s admissions policy, arguing that the policy breaks the Admissions Code.

In January 2012, we overturned plans which would have allowed community schools to convert to religious Academies in one step. In December 2012, we co-organised a joint letter from fourteen national organisations, including the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Runnymede Trust, asking for an end to faith-based school admissions in England. Following on from that, in June 2013 we helped launch the Fair Admissions Campaign, a single issue campaign focused on faith-based admissions. We are on the steering group for the Campaign, with supporters including both the Labour and Liberal Democrat education associations, the Green Party, ATL and the Runnymede Trust. In December the Campaign published a map that revealed for the first time the extent that schools religiously and socio-economically select, and how much this correlates.

We support local campaigns against proposed new ‘faith’ schools, and to make existing ones more inclusive. Since the 2010 general election, this has included the aforementioned campaign in Richmond-upon-Thames, as well as campaigns in Kingston, Malton, the Isle of Wight, Solihull and Surrey. The Fair Admissions Campaign also has a number of affiliated local groups.

We have also been working against new religious Free Schools, including creationist schools. We are particularly concerned that the additional freedoms that Academies and Free Schools enjoy around admissions, employment and the curriculum allow them to religiously discriminate more than has previously been possible in state-funded schools, and that a wider diversity of state ‘faith’ schools are opening than ever before. We are also deeply concerned that the Church of England and Catholic Church both seem to see the Academies programme as an opportunity to take control of Community schools with no religious character that convert to Academies. The CofE in particular aims to gain 200 new schools in the next five years. A decade ago its ambition was 100 new schools in the next ten years.

We are also a founding member of the Accord Coalition – a wide coalition of organisations working for reform of state funded schools to make them more inclusive in matters of religion or belief. Accord brings together religious and non-religious supporters of change as well as teaching unions, human rights organisations and high profile individuals.

Get involved

We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on ‘faith’ schools and education – the only full-time campaigner on these issues in the UK. We’ve not yet raised his salary for 2014 – you can help us do so by donating at http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.

You can help us by opposing proposals for state-funded religious schools in your area, and working to make new ones more inclusive. You could make representations, set up a new campaign against any proposals, or get involved in school governance or your council’s overview and scrutiny committee. If you want to start a campaign or hear of any possible school changes proposed in your area, please email us.

You can also support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.