JFS legal ruling questions discriminatory faith schools' admissions

By staff writers
December 18, 2009

The Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusive education, has welcomed the Supreme Court judgement on JFS, which lessens the power of state-funded faith schools to discriminate in their admissions policy.

The Court ruled that the admissions criteria to JFS – formerly the Jews’ Free School - in Kenton, London, contravenes the Race Relations Act 1976. It upheld an earlier ruling by the Court of Appeal.

The case emerged after a a boy was rejected from JFS because his mother was not born Jewish. His mother converted to the faith but this was not recognised by the Office of the Chief Rabbi.
A child is not recognised by the OCR and some other bodies as Jewish unless his or her mother is Jewish by birth.

The ruling is likely to force most of the 38 state and 60 private Jewish schools to tear up their entry policies as admissions were not based solely on the child’s faith.

"This is a small but timely step in ensuring that faith schools are more diverse and open, although they are still far from being as open or inclusive as they should be," said Accord chair, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain.

Dr Romain, who has campaigned for community schooling both within his own Jewish community and more widely, commented: "We hope this ruling will serve as a wake-up call to faith schools by showing that religious admissions rules must conform to the law of the land, though we will continue urging for all faith schools to stop discriminatory policies entirely. Taxpayer funded faith schools should serve not just themselves but also the community around them."

He added: "The best faith schools are those that seek to be as inclusive as possible, open in their admissions and wide-ranging in their RE syllabus.”

Representatives for Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, admitted that the judgment “potentially impacts on other schools that give preference to members of particular faiths” because religion was “closely related” to ethnic origin in many cases.

In some areas, Christian schools may be “largely or exclusively white”, the Government conceded in a submission to an earlier court hearing. “If membership of a religion in that area is regarded as ‘closely related’ to one ethnic group rather than another, it may be that admissions arrangements will fall within the ambit of the… decision,” the document declared.

However, Mr Balls said that action might now be taken by the government to find a way to allow England’s 7,000 state-funded Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish schools to continue selecting and refusing pupils along religious lines.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, welcomed the judgement and urged the government to re-think its strategy.

He said: "Rather than viewing the JFS judgement as a threat, the government and faith schools' providers should regard it as a wake-up call and a positive opportunity. Religiously-based discrimination on admissions and employment is wrong. Schools funded overwhelmingly by the taxpayer should be open to all, welcoming to all, and capable of cultivating an ethos which - whatever its specific ethical and spiritual characteristics - encourages diversity and respect between different communities."

Ekklesia has argued a strong theological case that the core Christian message promotes social justice and opposes discrimination, and that churches should not be seeking to hide selection policies that favour their own and disfavour others behind talk of 'Christian ethos'.

"The JFS case highlights the problem with any admissions policies in state-funded schools based on restrictive religious requirements and judgements," said Barrow.

Meanwhile, Andrew Copson, director of education and public affairs for the British Humanist Association, which has had a longstanding interest in the JFS case, said: "This judgment is immensely important. It puts beyond doubt the position that, even though there may be a religious motivation for doing so, discrimination against children in admissions on racial grounds is illegal under any circumstances. This is not a matter of restricting 'religious freedom' or otherwise; that the admissions criteria of a state-funded faith school have been found to be racially discriminatory should be enough impetus to look carefully at the criteria all faith schools use to discriminate in their admissions."

Mr Copson, who in the New Year will become the BHA's Chief Executive Officer, added: "Faith schools are almost entirely state funded in the main. Sixty years ago, religious groups provided a lot of funding for their state funded schools, it was a genuine partnership, and so they've retained certain control over admissions. But these days 100 per cent of the running costs are paid by the state and so there's absolutely no reason why what is essentially a public service should be denied to any children whatever their beliefs or the beliefs of their parents."

The Accord Coalition (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/) was launched in early September 2008 to bring together both religious and non-religious organisations campaigning for an end to religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions.

The coalition also works for a fair and balanced RE curriculum and the removal of the requirement for compulsory collective worship but does not take a position for or against faith schools in principle. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the British Humanist Association and the Christian think-tank Ekklesia are founding members of the Accord Coalition.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.