70 Rabbis challenge Chief Rabbi over exclusive position on religious selection in school admissions

Rabbis from across the UK have written an open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening opposing calls made by the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis for new ‘faith’ schools to be allowed to select all of their places on the basis of religion. The Chief Rabbi has reportedly been putting significant pressure on the Government to drop the requirement that all new Free Schools must leave 50% of their places open to children in the local community, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs. The group of Rabbis who have written to the Education Secretary, however, say that the requirement benefits both ‘the children concerned and the society into which they will emerge and help shape’. The British Humanist Association (BHA), which has long campaigned against religious discrimination in school admissions, has welcomed the letter and states that it demonstrates the increasing opposition to divisive and segregated schooling from those of all religions and beliefs.

Currently, new Free Schools are only able to select up to half of their places with reference to religion, a policy which in the words of the Department for Education (DfE) is designed to ‘help tackle segregation and ensure young people will experience the diversity of religious beliefs that make up modern Britain’. The Chief Rabbi has publicly disagreed with this approach, however, and only this month a spokesperson for his office stated that Jewish schools should provide ‘a completely immersive Jewish environment – something which is far more challenging if the 50 per cent rule associated with free schools is applied’.

The letter, signed by 68 Rabbis, was orchestrated by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue, who is also chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education which campaigns for ‘faith’ school reform. Contrary to comments made by the Chief Rabbi, it states that ‘Jewish values can happily co-exist with social cohesion’ in education, and that an open, non-discriminatory admissions policy achieves a ‘balance’ so that children can gain ‘both a sense of religious roots and openness to others’.

The Office of the Chief Rabbi is not the only religious organisation to have been lobbying the Government to drop the 50% cap. The Catholic Education Service has long called for such a move, with Director Paul Barber stating earlier this year that the Catholic Church would continue to ‘ask the Government to remove the barriers’ which currently left them ‘unable to engage’ in the Free Schools programme.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Jay Harman commented, ‘The amount of pressure that the “religious lobby” has been putting on Government to allow their schools to be more discriminatory and more divisive is both inappropriate and entirely out-of-step with efforts to improve integration in the education system. What this letter shows is that the position of these groups is also entirely out-of-step with the majority of religious people, who evidently believe that social cohesion and mutual understanding are best served by schools which are inclusive, open, and diverse. We hope the new Education Secretary will pay close attention to the views expressed in this letter, and in addition to keeping the 50% rule will consider going further by introducing requirements on schools to be even more inclusive in their admission arrangements.’


For further comment of information please contact Jay Harman on jay@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3078/07970 393 680.

Read the BHA’s previous news item ‘End religious selection in Anglican schools say prominent figures within Church of England’: https://humanism.org.uk/2015/04/02/end-religious-selection-in-anglican-schools-say-prominent-figures-within-church-of-england/

Read more about the BHA’s work on faith schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/faith-schools/

The BHA is a co-founder of the Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC).

The FAC wants all state-funded schools in England and Wales to be open equally to all children, without regard to religion or belief. The Campaign is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations. We hold diverse views on whether or not the state should fund faith schools. But we all believe that faith-based discrimination in access to schools that are funded by the taxpayer is wrong in principle and a cause of religious, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation, all of which are harmful to community cohesion. It is time it stopped.

Supporters of the campaign include the British Humanist Association, Professor Ted Cantle and the iCoCo Foundation, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Campaign for State Education, the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the Hindu Academy, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrat Education Association, Liberal Youth, the Local Schools Network, Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, the Runnymede Trust, the Socialist Educational Association, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.