Around a third of all state-funded schools in England and Wales are schools ‘with a religious character’ – the legal term for ‘faith schools’, as they are known in England and Wales, or denominational schools, as they are known in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 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.
Humanists UK 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.
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 that are in line with their own beliefs.
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 is making for a more segregated future, particularly as religions whose believers tend to come from particular ethnic groups gain more state-funded schools. When studies show that religious selection for pupils also results, deliberately or otherwise, in socio-economic selection, we think the social case against religious schools is even stronger.
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 wider 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 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. The majority are permitted to teach their own syllabus of Religious Education (RE), unlike community schools which must follow a locally agreed syllabus, and Academies with no religious character which must teach a syllabus that is equivalent in its balance. The teaching of RE in religious schools is not specifically inspected by Ofsted, instead being inspected by someone chosen by the governors (which typically means the diocese). It is usually 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 2012we published research 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, 2012 and 2014, we also responded to the recent UK and Welsh Government consultations on school admissions.
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, currently being appealed by the school to the Court of Appeal, about the London Oratory School’s admissions policy, after the Office of the Schools Adjudicator agreed with us that the school’s admissions policy breaks the Admissions Code in 105 different ways.
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.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on faith schools and education. We’ve not yet raised her salary for 2019 – 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 Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK.