Discrimination on religious grounds in education is spiritually and socially harmful

By Simon Barrow
November 15, 2012

As we report here, a November 2012 ComRes opinion survey commissioned by the Accord Coalition on inclusive education indicates that the British public is overwhelmingly opposed to selection or discrimination on grounds of religion in the matter of admissions to state funded schools.

This is a challenge to the current practices of many religious foundation schools in receipt of very substantial public (taxpayer derived) funds. It surely encourages them to build an ethos that opposes discrimination and develops community, as a matter of principle as well as good practice. I have been working on a forthcoming Accord position paper which set out why and how this is important.

For some time Ekklesia has also been arguing on theological grounds that the heart of the Christian message is strongly antithetical to the idea of favouring 'our own' over against others. Rather, the followers of Christ are required to love their neighbours, to pay no regard to status or wealth, and to do everything in their power to favour those pushed down and marginalised - rather than to perpetuate a culture of privilege, self-regard or self-interest. For us this is a spiritual concern and priority, not a secular one.

So the case against religiously-based selection or rejection of prospective pupils for schools funded by the whole community can and should be articulated in decisively Christian terms. But equally, the point of the Accord Coalition is to bring together those of different religious persuasions and none to spell out a common case for reform and change, incorporating the specific arguments for so doing developed from within particular traditions, both religious and non-religious.

The other side of this positive case for inclusion developed by the Accord Coalition needs to be an honest recognition of the damaging social, cultural (and, yes, spiritual) impact of discrimination in religious foundation schools. This also is the background to the growing public desire for change illustrated by the results of our latest ComRes survey.

For example, research from the Guardian, unveiled on 5 March 2012, showed that most faith schools admit fewer than the national average of pupils in receipt of free schools meals (used by government as a fair measure of deprivation) than the average for schools in their respective local authority area, and a smaller proportion of such pupils than are present in the area covered by the first three digits of the school’s respective postcode. Worryingly, the research indicated that Church of England schools were increasingly serving the better-heeled in their communities.

The report Praying for success? Faith schools and school choice in East London,by Tim Butler and Chris Hamnett, was released in April 2012. It found that “… perceptions of good behaviour standards, the reproduction of social privilege and educational attainment rather than religious faith have become their [faith schools] main attraction” (p2). However, the authors noted that faith schools “… offer for parents who live out of the catchment [area] of a preferred non-selective school a way of avoiding being allocated to a less popular school. The dilemma is often posed in terms of attainment, standards, values and behaviour but this often came across in our interviews as an elaborate form of code for evading what was perceived as an unacceptable social mix based around the ‘wrong’ combination of class and ethnic background” (p11).

Among the key findings of Social Capital, Diversity and Education Policy,by Professor Irene Bruegel of the London South Bank University Families and Social Capital ESRC Research Group (2006) were that “Friendship at primary schools can, and does, cross ethnic and faith divides wherever children have the opportunity to make friends from different backgrounds. At that age, in such schools, children are not highly conscious of racial differences and are largely unaware of the religion of their friends ... There was some evidence that parents learned to respect people from other backgrounds as a result of their children’s experiences in mixed schools” (p2).

Identities in Transition: A Longitudinal Study of Immigrant Children, by Rupert Brown, Adam Rutland and Charles Watters from the Universities of Sussex and Kent (2008) found that “… the effects of school diversity were consistent, most evidently on social relations: higher self-esteem, fewer peer problems and more cross-group friendships. Such findings show that school ethnic composition can significantly affect the promotion of positive intergroup attitudes. These findings speak against policies promoting single faith schools, since such policies are likely to lead to reduced ethnic diversity in schools” (p9).

Meanwhile, the Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign is taking Richmond Borough Council to the High Court on Thursday 15 November 2012. They accuse the Council of trying to circumnavigate central Government policy that requires all new faith schools to be limited in selecting no more than half their pupils on religious grounds. They have been joined in the case by the British Humanist Association, who outline their legal challenge at here.
Accord as a whole has not taken a prior position on this particular legal case, but will await the outcome with interest.

* Opinion poll: religious selection or discrimination in school admissions: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17383


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, which is one of the original founders of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education. He is a member of the Accord steering committee.

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.