New coalition agreement busts myths around faith schools

By Jonathan Bartley
May 21, 2010

One potential positive about the coalition Government's new agreement, is its policy on faith schools.

We highlighted the inherent tension in the Conservative policy before the election. On the one hand the Conservatives want faith groups to be able to run new schools. On the other, they have been reluctant to say that faith schools should be able to discriminate in admissions - and possibly employment. The Lib Dems, whilst supporting faith schools, have also been opposed to allowing faith schools to discriminate in such ways.

The argument mounted by faith schools - and in particular church schools - has previously been that discrimination in employment and admissions is necessary to maintain a 'religious ethos'. In other words, they claim that you can only really have faith schools if they discriminate in such ways.

The argument falls apart however, when you look at the facts. There simply aren't, for example, enough church-goers or other people of faith to fill all the headteacher posts in faith schools (including one third of primary schools in the UK). Many faith schools happily maintain their religious ethos without discriminating in admissions and employment.

Until now, this untenable position that the churches and others have taken has however, been allowed to polarise the debate. Churches have mounted the argument that those who want to reform faith schools and make them more inclusive in admissions and employment are 'anti' faith schools. They have allowed no middle ground for those who on the one hand want faith communities to be able to run schools, but on the other feel that they should do so fairly and justly, and in an inclusive way.

The new policy being pursued by the coalition government however, appears to be a breath of fresh air. It backs the right of faith communities to create and run new schools. But it says they must do so on an 'inclusive' basis (although it should be noted that their idea of promoting 'inclusion' doesn't relate to disabled children).

It remains to be seen just what the policy detail looks like, and whether the church lobby succeeds in changing the plans. It should also be noted that this doesn't apply to existing faith schools - only new ones. But as things stand, the new government is certainly challenging head on the myth perpetuated by churches and others that in order to have a religious ethos for your school, it cannot be inclusive. And it will be hard to say that new faith schools must be inclusive, whilst continuing to allow thousands of others, also almost entirely funded by the taxpayer, to continue to disciminate against 90 per cent of the population.

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