BHA: Even the government don’t know which Academies and Free Schools are religiously discriminating ‘faith’ schools

A new Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the British Humanist Association (BHA) has revealed that even the Department for Education (DfE) do not know which Academies and Free Schools have a ‘faith ethos’ and which do not. The BHA has branded the revelation ‘unbelievable’.

‘Faith ethos’ schools are a growing but largely hidden type of state-funded school. In the state-maintained school sector (i.e. community, voluntary and foundation schools), if the authority or foundation that runs the school wants to appoint any governors on the basis of their religion, then the school must formally register with the government as having a religious character. However, in the independent school sector, such registration is permissive; and as Academies and Free Schools are legally independent schools, it is left up to the authority in these two types of school as well.

Formally registering with a religious character allows a school to gain certain control over its admissions, employment, RE and Collective Worship that it would not otherwise enjoy. However, as all Academies and Free Schools enjoy a large number of freedoms, it is therefore the case that faith groups that do not formally register their schools as having a religious character still get a lot of control over the school that they would not get with a state-maintained school. These ‘faith ethos’ schools, as they are known, are allowed to religiously select all the governors; use a religious genuine occupational requirement in appointing senior staff; and also put a religious slant on some aspects of the curriculum, such as sex and relationships education (SRE). Finally, a school could gain or lose a ‘faith ethos’ at any time simply through a change in ownership – no discussion with the local community is required.

‘Faith ethos’ Academies have been feasible since at least 2003, but have been growing rapidly in number since the coalition government started expanding the number of Academies in 2010. It is unclear exactly how many there are, but known examples include Canary Wharf College, Priors Free School , Sandbach School and Discovery New School – four of the six Christian Free Schools to open in 2011; Swindon Academy, a United Learning Trust Academy set up in 2007 that shares the ULT’s Anglican ethos; and the Grace Academies of Coventry, Darlaston and Solihull, which have a Christian ethos.

In addition, the Church of England has this year announced that it will encourage former community schools, upon converting to Academies, to join into partnership with it and perhaps adopt an Anglican ethos. This theme was further explored in the recent Chadwick Report.

The results of this Freedom of Information request reveal that even the DfE do not know which schools have a ‘faith ethos’.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘It’s unbelievable that the government doesn’t even know which Academies and Free Schools are ‘faith’ schools and which are not. These schools don’t even have to make their ethos obvious to parents, teachers and the local community. How are parents meant to know whether the Academy or Free School they are sending their children to is going to teach high quality SRE, or teach that contraception should never be used and abstinence before marriage is the best approach? How are they meant to know if there is a requirement that the head of the school must be of a certain religion?

‘From an equalities point of view, it is vitally important that all government bodies record whether they are contracting out with religious or secular organisations – in order to prevent such unforeseen discrimination occurring. We are amazed that the DfE have failed to do this.’


For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson at or on 020 7462 4993.

The 2013 Free School application forms do for the first time ask applicants whether they intend for their schools to have a ‘faith ethos’. However, the response to the FOI reveals that the government do not hold this data for schools opened over the prior 10 years; and would not record any changes in the ‘faith ethos’ of Academies and Free Schools.

Read the BHA briefing note, ‘Faith ethos’ Academies and Free Schools explained, April 2012:

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools:

View the BHA’s table of types of school with a religious character:

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.