Government pledges to increase religious influence in state schools
The Government has announced that it plans to change the law to help religious groups open more state-funded schools in England. The proposals appear in the latest Department for Education white paper, Opportunity for All. The paper also sees the Government announce more financial support for religious authorities to ‘academise’ schools. Humanists UK has expressed alarm that religious groups are earmarked for this special treatment.
Explaining the subsidies and plans for more faith schools, the white paper states:
‘We will provide assurance to Church and faith schools when they join or form [Academy] trusts, bringing forward legislation to ensure that statutory freedoms and protections that apply to Church and faith maintained schools also apply to academies with a religious character. We recognise the costs which Dioceses and other religious authorities face in establishing trusts and we will develop options for financial support, allowing strong Church and faith trusts to drive even higher standards in these schools. We are also committed to ensuring that all providers of schools with a religious character remain able to open new schools, once all schools are in trusts.’
If enacted, these proposals will mean that more state-funded faith schools will open, perversely at a time when religious observance is in decline. Furthermore, it paves the way for greater segregation, due to faith schools being able to discriminate against children on grounds of religion in their admissions policies. Such policies disadvantage the non-religious, ethnic and religious minorities, and the poor.
However, later on there were also signs within the white paper that the Government is open to reform of schools admissions criteria:
‘…we will work with local authorities, trusts, schools and parents to develop options to reform the admissions framework, including the setting of over-subscription criteria. We will consult on a statutory framework to govern children’s movements so that all placement decisions – including about the use of alternative provision – are always made in the best interest of the child, especially the most vulnerable like children in need.’
This doesn’t refer specifically to faith-based admissions. But it would be crucial that any reform to admissions procedures removes the ability of faith schools to discriminate against children on grounds of religious background. It is hard to see how the system can work in the best interests of children without tackling this.
Finally, the white paper also reiterates a previous commitment to increase Ofsted’s powers to take action on illegal schools – something the Government first announced over three years ago, and on which Humanists UK continues to press for action:
‘We will introduce legislation to increase Ofsted’s powers to inspect schools that are operating illegally without registration, addressing risks to the safeguarding and education of children who attend them.’
Humanists UK’s Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘It is bizarre, and grossly unfair, that the Government is going to increase the role that religious groups can play in our children’s education. It runs contrary to our increasingly non-religious society. Moreover, faith-based discrimination leads to segregation in communities, so we are hugely disappointed that this may now get worse at the taxpayer’s expense.
‘We will lobby against these changes to ensure that pupils and families receive fairer treatment in school admissions. The announced consultation on admissions reform may give us an opportunity to campaign vociferously for the removal of all religious selection in schools.’