The Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, has revealed that Ministers in the Department for Education have had numerous meetings with groups which ignore the failures of faith schools with regard to vulnerable children.
Responding yesterday to a parliamentary question from Dr Julian Huppert MP, Mr Gibb revealed that Ministers had held meetings at his Department with representatives from the Church of England three times, representatives from the Catholic Church and Catholic Education Service for England and Wales three times, and met with the Board of Deputies of British Jews twice.
In contrast however the Accord Coalition, which represents a wide range of both religious and non-religious groups concerned about the way faith schools currently operate, has made five formal requests to meet with Education Ministers during this period, but has so far not been able to arrange any meetings.
Academic evidence given to cross-party Parliamentary committees as well as in depth research by the House of Commons library has previously highlighted how faith schools take fewer children with Special Educational Needs and those eligible for free schools meals, a generally accepted measure of social deprivation. The figures are calculated each year through the National Schools Census run by the Department for Education. However the groups with which the Government has met deny that any problems are being caused by the selective admissions policies of faith schools.
Current government plans look likely to give greater freedoms to faith schools over such areas as admissions, heightening concerns that faith schools will further exclude the most vulnerable children.
According to data collected in the 2008 National School Census 11.2 per cent of pupils at primary faith schools and 11 per cent at secondary faith schools were eligible for free school meals. These rates compare to national averages of 15.6 per cent and 12.9 per cent for primary and secondary schools respectively. Faith schools had just over 60,000 fewer pupils from these lower income backgrounds than would be expected if their intake was the same as the national average.
With regard to disability, 1.2 per cent of pupils at mainstream state faith schools had statemented Special Educational Needs and 15.9 per cent had unstatemented needs. This compares to 1.7 per cent statemented and 18.9 per cent unstatemented children in schools with no religious character.
Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, said: "There are a wide range of views on faith schools and how they should operate. It is very worrying that during a period when the Government is undertaking such a wide programme of education reform that they have met so many times with groups that want faith schools to continue to operate in narrow and discriminatory ways, but have not taken into account the views of others, such as those represented by the Accord Coalition.
"The Academies Act 2010 has had some very negative, but unintended consequences. For example, it unwittingly gives voluntary controlled faith schools that become a new Academy school far more power to discriminate on religious grounds in the employment and recruitment of teachers, while it also gives them the power to ignore their locally agreed RE curriculum, which requires they teach about different religious and non-religious worldviews, and lets them only teach about the school’s faith. This both denies children general knowledge of the many different traditions within Britain today and impedes social cohesion.
"The Government should learn from this experience that they need to consult with interested parties to help improve decision making. It should also follow that because the Government is currently formulating such ambitious and radical changes, such as to the National Curriculum, that they should consult more widely, rather than less".