CofE and Board of Deputies anti-racism reports overlook faith school admissions

Church of England-run state schools that religiously select admit 2.2 percentage points fewer Asian pupils than those that don’t, while around two-thirds of Jewish schools have no Asian pupils in them But today’s landmark reports published by the Church of England and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) about what their communities can do to tackle racism completely overlook the impact of faith school admissions policies in driving segregation.

The reports – From Lament to Action produced by the Members of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce, and the Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community prepared for the Board of Deputies – make various recommendations relating to education, including taking steps to diversify the curriculum and improve ethnic diversity among teaching staff and school leaders. The BoD report also suggests that ‘all Jewish schools should embark upon a programme of extra-curricular activities which may include… a school linking programme where [sic] possible linking with schools with significant numbers of Black or Asian students.’

However, neither report considers the negative role that religiously selective admissions policies have repeatedly been demonstrated to have on the ethnic composition of faith schools – or the impact removing such policies would have on improving access for non-white pupils. This is despite the fact that, in the case of the CofE report, this was expressly highlighted in a submission from the Accord Coalition.

Research conducted by Humanists UK in 2016 also established that just 6% of pupils attending CofE schools with 100% religiously selective admissions policies were Asian compared to 15% of pupils attending CofE free schools, which are only entitled to select 50% of their pupils by faith. A further investigation carried out in 2013 found that, out of 44 Jewish state schools, 29 had no Asian pupils, despite the figure for children from such backgrounds in the local area being 12%. Indeed, one Jewish school with no Asian pupils was situated in an area in which the majority of the population in the immediate vicinity were Asian.

As far back as 2001, the Home Office-commissioned Cantle Report into the race riots in Bradford, Leeds, Oldham and Burnley that year noted that some schools appeared to be ‘operating discriminatory policies where religious affiliations protect cultural and ethnic divisions’. At the launch of a follow-up 2009 report into Blackburn with Darwen, its author, Prof Ted Cantle, stated that faith-based admissions policies were ‘automatically a source of division’ in the town.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented: 

‘Today’s reports make welcome recommendations on racial inclusion, including in the school curriculum and workforce, and we are sure the Church of England and Board of Deputies will be very pleased with the roadmap they provide.

‘However, we are disappointed that the racially segregating impact of faith school admissions has been overlooked. Time and time again, research has shown that religious selection in schools leads to segregation in communities along lines of race and poverty. Most countries do not have this issue because the UK is almost alone in the west in allowing its state-funded schools to discriminate in admissions on the basis of religion. Sadly the impact of faith schools admissions remains the elephant in the room.’

The reports come just after the news that the Chief Rabbi has issued new guidance on school admissions in light of the pandemic. These will give families more time to fulfil the religious practice requirements that are used to judge which children will be prioritised in the event a school is oversubscribed. During the pandemic, many Church schools have similarly diluted the religious requirements in their admissions policies to make them fairer. However, there has been little appetite to make these changes permanent. This is despite their disproportionate impact on disadvantaged families – not only ethnic minorities but also those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.