BHA: Religious selection in school admissions is unfair, unpopular, unnecessary and a global outlier

by Andrew Copson, chief executive, British Humanist Association

Today sees the launch of the Fair Admissions Campaign in England and Wales. It aims to end the absurd situation whereby a child can be denied a place at their local state school because their family is of the wrong religion or of no religion.

One third of state funded schools in England and Wales are designated as religious, and the majority of these select some or all of their pupils on the basis of faith. This is bad for community cohesion as the evidence shows that it segregates children on religious, ethnic and socio-economic grounds – something that is never justifiable but is increasingly problematic as our society gets more diverse.

It is also discrimination, making schools the only public services which are restricted to certain people on the grounds of religion – imagine if hospitals, public benefits or transportation were similarly segregated. That would be bad enough. But such discrimination is even worse when it happens in education, where we should be teaching young people about the importance of inclusivity and celebrating diversity, in order to create a better society for them to inherit.

The British Humanist Association is proud to be one of the founders of the Campaign. The Accord Coalition, which like us has long campaigned for religiously inclusive education, is also involved, as is Professor Ted Cantle CBE, author of ‘The Cantle Report’ into the 2001 race riots and chief proponent of the subsequent community cohesion agenda. We’re also already supported by the Liberal Democrat and Labour educational associations, the teaching union ATL, the race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, a diverse range of religious organisations, and more.

And we’re supported by 73% of the public: an opinion poll last year found that the public opposes being ‘allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’ by more than four to one.

Faith-based selection is unfair and unpopular. It is also unnecessary. While most faith schools religiously select, a significant minority – particularly Church of England and Methodist schools, and those provided by the Oasis Academy Chain – do not. These schools have no trouble maintaining their religious ethos, showing that such discrimination is not necessary for a faith school to be distinctive of their religion. (The BHA, of course, does not support the state funding of religious schools at all, but still recognises this point.)

The needlessness of religious selection to maintain ethos is further highlighted by the fact that, globally, it is highly unusual for even religious state funded schools to discriminate in this manner. School Choice and Equity, a report published last year by the OECD, found that the UK is one of only four OECD countries that allow some of its state schools to religiously select, the others being the Republic of Ireland, Estonia and Israel. Our own research suggests that a very small number of private schools in Germany and the Netherlands receive state funds and can require something similar. But it is clear that the UK is at the wrong end of the global spectrum.

Even within the UK there is variance. In Scotland, no state school religiously selects. In Northern Ireland, religious segregation in schools is much more prevalent, but in the last few years there has emerged a political consensus that the Protestant and Catholic school sectors should be integrated. In England and Wales, the amount of selection in schools has been going up, as faith schools continue to grow as a proportion of the whole.

Ending religious selection won’t fix all problems with our educational system, and the BHA campaigns on a range of other issues to do with schools. But for the reasons I have set out, erecting barriers to who can even attend a school in the first place is unfair, unpopular, unnecessary and a unusual. It’s time we do something about this. This is why we’re reaching out to parents and everyone else who wants a more inclusive and cohesive society to get involved at