Religious schools criticised for ignoring disadvantaged children

2 Jan

In early December 2013, the Fair Admissions Campaign published research into how religious selection criteria in faith schools unfairly discriminates against the most vulnerable pupils we educate, especially those entitled to free schools meals and others who have a mother tongue other than English, militating against social and ethnic inclusiveness. The research synthesised data from five main sources and hundreds of admissions directories.  Researchers then mapped out the hierarchy of areas (see here) where the discrimination exists. 

The key findings were as follows.

(1)        Comprehensive secondary schools with no religious character admit 11% more pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected given their areas. Comprehensive Church of England secondary schools admit 10% fewer; Roman Catholic secondary schools 24% fewer; Jewish secondary schools 61% fewer; and Muslim secondary schools 25% fewer.

(2)        There is a clear correlation between religious selection and socio-economic segregation: Church of England comprehensives that don’t select on faith criteria admit 4% more pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected, while those whose admissions criteria allow full selection admit 31% fewer.

(3)        Altogether, 16% of schools select by religion but they are vastly overrepresented in the 100 worst offenders on free school meal eligibility and English as an additional language (EAL). They make up 46 of the worst 100 schools (and 67 out of 100 if we exclude grammar schools) on FSM eligibility and 50 of the worst 100 (55 if we exclude grammar schools) on EAL.

(4)        The most segregated local authority as a result of religious selection is Hammersmith and Fulham. While 15% of pupils nationally are eligible for free school meals, the segregation between the religiously selective schools and other schools is almost double that (27 percentage points) in this local authority.

The Fair Admissions Campaign group estimated that 16% of places at state schools (or 1.2 million) are subject to religious selection criteria. This compared with 5% of secondary places in grammar schools and 7% of all places in independent schools.

The Chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, said, ‘This new research exposes the hypocrisy of those who claim religiously selective schools serve the community at large. It reveals that they not only further segregate children on religious and ethnic grounds, but also are skewed towards serving the affluent at the expense of the deprived. Crucially, the research also shows that the more a school is permitted to select children by faith, the greater the extent to which it is likely to socio-economically segregate. The data poses some very awkward questions for the state funded faith school sector, especially as many people of faith are appalled that schools that should focus on the poor have become so elitist.’

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, remarked: ‘The findings make clear like never before the devastating effects that faith-based admissions have in segregating communities along socio-economic and ethnic lines. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said, however, that Church of England schools were moving away from religious selection. Copson’s riposte was that ‘we  have yet to see if this is true, but at the same time believe it cannot come true soon enough. In any case, the scale of the problem demands not voluntary effort by religious groups but legislation – government should act now to make these divisive effects impossible by removing the possibility of religious selection in state-funded schools.’

Professor Ted Cantle CBE, who chaired the working party that carried out an inquiry into the 2001 race riots, and founded the Institute of Community Cohesion, commented, ‘This research clearly demonstrates the increasing balkanisation of our school system, with children growing up in separate communities with little chance of learning about others. It shows that education has done nothing to break down the “parallel lives” I described in 2001, rather they have been reinforced.’

Jeremy Rodell, Chair of the Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, who last year took out a judicial review against two proposed Catholic schools in the hope of establishing more inclusive admissions policies, observed: ‘The evidence presented by this new data is very clear. We already knew that it is unfair for state-funded schools to discriminate on the basis of religion. But we can now see that the unfairness is compounded because it also disadvantages children who are already disadvantaged. Perversely, those who are the strongest advocates of choice in schooling are apparently happy to defend admissions policies that give some parents far more choice than others simply because of their religious practices, genuine or otherwise. Surely no government, of any political complexion, should allow this to continue.’

In the meantime, a survey by the social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust, revealed that 10% of professional parents admitted to having attended church and other religious services only so that their children could attend the local faith schools.

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