Supporters of broad-based and inclusive publicly-funded schools have expressed disappointment at a high court judgment issued yesterday, which examines for the first time the legality of faith school admissions, but fails to consider seriously the possibility of religious discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The case, which was heard in March 2008, was brought against the Jews’ Free School (JFS) in Harrow by parents whose child was denied a place at the school under rules which favour children of Jewish descent over those who follow Jewish practice, a policy which the claimant argued to be discriminatory on ethnic grounds.
Although the judgment found in favour of the school, Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, which took up the case, welcomed the fact that the legal issues around faith school admissions out into the open.
Mr Copson commented: "We are obviously disappointed with the verdict, but at least now there is recognition that some aspects of faith school admissions might be incompatible with human rights legislation. We agree with Justice Munby that the state-funding of faith schools is not, in itself, a breach of the ECHR, but we believe it does not follow that discriminatory admissions criteria in such schools are either legally or morally acceptable."
He added: "In the case of JFS, the admissions criteria privilege members of a group even if they do not believe in or follow the religion on which the school was founded. We believe that this is in contravention of Article 14 of the ECHR, which prohibits discrimination, including on grounds of religion, and we hope that the case will now go to the Court of Appeal for further consideration. It is important that we have a vigorous and well informed debate about whether it is right for state-funded schools in modern Britain to reject pupils because they or their parents are not members of a particular group."
In 2001 80% of respondents to a MORI poll believed all schools should be open to those of any religion or belief. In 2005 64% of respondents to an ICM poll opposed government funding for faith schools. In the same year a study by the Islamic Human Rights Commission found that only 49.7% of Muslim men and 42.9% of Muslim women had a preference for Muslim schools for their children.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "It is time that both religious communities and government were more direct in tackling the issue of discrimination in admissions and employment in faith schools, with a view to eliminating such practices."
Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, challenged by a new report from the Centre for Policy Studies, has clarified with regard to faith schools that "I have ordered no investigation into their admission practices."
Ekklesia argues that many religious as well as non-religious people believe that he should do precisely that.