The Church of England's newly released guidance on pupil admission policies for C of E schools and Diocesan Boards of Education falls short of substantiating an earlier commitment to reduce discrimination, say education campaigners.
In April 2011 the Bishop of Oxford, chair of the Church of England’s Board of Education and the Episcopal spokesperson on education in the House of Lords, announced that the Church would recommend in its new guidance that its schools should limit the proportion of pupils that they select on the grounds of religion to 10 per cent of their intake.
The Rt Rev John Pritchard argued that this was a matter of Christian principle as well as pragmatic consideration in a plural society.
However, the new guidance released on 27 June 2011, offers no clear advice that the proportion of pupils selected on religious grounds in schools should be restricted at all, while restating pre-existing policy that Church of England schools should "challenge" the views of non-religious pupils.
The chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, commented: "In 2007 The Church of England gave a much trumpeted commitment to the government that its schools would select at least 25 per cent of their pupils from other religion and belief backgrounds. However, the Church did not ensure or even actively recommend that its schools adhere to this undertaking. The Church has now again made a headline grabbing commitment that it will seek to reduce religious selection in its schools, but which it has backtracked from."
He continued: "It is astonishing that at the same time the Church has also restated pre-existing policy that its schools should challenge the beliefs of the non-religious. Schools should be suitable for all children, regardless of their background. They should have no business challenging the religious or philosophical beliefs of children and their families. For the Church of England to suggest that its schools should do otherwise, when they are almost entirely paid for by the taxpayer, is an abuse of its power and ultimately of public funds. It should instead focus on its historic and admirable mission of seeking to provide education for its own sake, for pupils of all backgrounds," said Dr Romain.
He concluded: "The Church’s continual failure to follow through on its pledges only reinforces how vital the need is for legislative change to ensure that state funded faith schools are brought into line so they do not discriminate in their admissions, as well as provide pupils with a broad and respectful education about the range of beliefs held in society."
Over 20 per cent of state -funded schools in England are Church of England schools, and most of its secondary schools and almost 45 per cent of its primary and middle schools are able to select all of their pupils on religious grounds if they are sufficiently oversubscribed.
Reformers argue that all publicly funded schools, whatever their foundation, should be open to all pupils, and that pressure to convert to, or undermine, a particular faith or ideology should not be part of the ethos of any school, whether religious or non-religious.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "This is very disappointing news. Schools funded by taxpayers should be open to people of all backgrounds, whether they are supported by a religious or a non-religious charity. The beliefs of pupils and parents should not form the basis of admission, or refusal of admission, to educational institutions intended to serve the whole community and financed on that basis."
He continued: "Discrimination on the grounds of religion surely ought to be against the ethos of any religious foundation school - not least a Christian-backed one. Likewise, publicly-funded schools of whatever character should provide a rounded education about different beliefs (both religious and non-religious) in our plural world, and should enable pupils to explore those beliefs critically and sympathetically, as part of encountering others from different backgrounds in person - rather than just in theory. However, schools need to leave the business of specifically religious or non-religious belief formation to the communities and families concerned, instead of pushing just one view to the exclusion of others. This even-handedness is as important for Christian parents and pupils in a non-religious foundation school, as it is for other believers or non-believers in a church foundation one."
He concluded: "The Church of England needs to be encouraged to think again about these issues, to hold to the public commitments it has made acknowledging that discrimination needs to be tackled, to respond to genuine concerns about its policies in schools overwhelmingly funded for and by the public as a whole, and to participate in a wider, non-sectarian debate about religion and schooling in the twenty-first century."
The Accord Coalition was launched in 2008 and brings together religious and non-religious organisations and individuals concerned about the negative effects of current faith schools public policy.
It campaigns to end religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions, and for all state maintained schools to provide Personal, Social, Health and Economic education and assemblies and quality Religious Education that teaches children about the wide variety of religions and beliefs in society.
Accord's growing list of members and supporters includes the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the British Humanist Association, the British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and members from the four largest groupings in parliament.