A new poll, published today (Monday 8 June) to coincide with the committee stage of the Equality Bill, has revealed the depth of public concern about current faith school practices and policies.
The survey, carried out by YouGov and commisioned by the community schooling coalition Accord, found that 57 per cent of respondents ‘agreed or strongly agreed’ that "state funded schools that select students by their religion undermine community cohesion", while only 19 per cent ‘disagreed or strongly disagreed’.
The poll also confirmed that 72 per cent ‘agreed or strongly agreed’ that "all state funded schools should operate recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on grounds of religion or belief", with only 9 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing.
A further 75 per cent ‘agreed or strongly agreed’ that "all state funded schools should teach an objective and balanced syllabus for education about a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs", with 8 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing
The poll comes just one day before members of the Equality Bill Committee will meet to hear evidence from ‘religion and belief’ organisations such as the General Synod, The Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and the British Humanist Association, which is an Accord Coalition member alongside religious organisations and individuals.
It is expected that much of the discussion in that meeting will focus on government plans to leave unchanged the wide exemptions from equalities legislation which faith schools have been granted .
The Accord Coalition and its supporters argue that to live up to its aims, the bill should examine the loopholes which currently allow faith schools to discriminate in their admissions and employment rules.
Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said:“ATL is pleased with the results of the Accord Coalition survey, which show that 72 per cent of individuals polled agreed that state-funded schools should not discriminate in their recruitment and employment on the grounds of religion and belief.”
She continued: “As the education union, ATL campaigns for equality of employment opportunities across all state-funded schools, including faith schools. We have strongly opposed recent legislation that extends religious discrimination to support staff in voluntary-aided faith schools and to headship applicants in Local authority-funded voluntary-controlled faith schools. We now call on those considering the Equality Bill to take note of public opinion and reform the law.”
Dr Bousted added: “We know that it is not only our members and teacher colleagues who lose out as a result of these selection practices but also schools and pupils. Research has shown that there is a recruitment problem in faith schools, particularly in relation to headship positions and this problem will only worsen as the faith school sector expands and increasingly, schools, staff, pupils and their parents will lose out.”
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, Chair of the Accord Coalition, said that the poll results are a "stunning indictment" of policies and practices which maintain insularity and exclusivity in some faith schools.
He declared: "It is time for faith schools to open their doors to the fresh air of inter-communal understanding. They must not only serve themselves but be part of the wider community too."
Dr Romain said that "the poll also highlights the massive support for schools to teach an objective and balanced syllabus about a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs. It gives added weight to the call of the Accord Coalition for religious education to be part of the national curriculum so as to ensure that all children have knowledge of the different traditions that make up British society today. This is a key element in nurturing good citizenship.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, added: "Together with recent independent research, these poll results make a decisive case for moving away from discrimination and segregation on the grounds of religion in Britain's taxpayer-funded schooling. The government and faith school providers need to recognise that the case for change is clear, positive and backed by the public."
Nine members of different faith groups appealed for a change of heart and mind on faith schools in a letter to The Times late last week.
The appeal for an end to discrimination was angrily rebutted by the Rev Jan Ainsworth, who heads up schools work for the Church of England. But campaigners for reform, who come from a wide cross- section of society say that the C of E must now engage public concerns and independent research rather than trying to dismiss them.
Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, said: “In 2006 the government dropped the proposal to require faith schools to open up their admissions to those of other beliefs and opted instead for a duty on all schools to promote community cohesion. The fact that 57 per cent of those polled this week agreed that religious admissions undermine community cohesion suggests that the government made the wrong decision in 2006 — we can only hope that MPs considering the Equality Bill do not make the same mistake.”
Accord Coalition: http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/