About a third of schools have a religious character, educating millions of children and employing thousands of teachers and support staff. Most faith schools are able to decide their own religious admissions criteria, hire staff according to their religion and determine their own syllabus for Religious Education. Because of all of this, any major schools reform will be profoundly shaped by the role of faith schools, whether or not politicians like to admit it.
The views of the public on the issue seem clear. A poll commissioned from YouGov by Accord found that 57 per cent of people ‘agreed or strongly agreed’ that “state funded schools that select students by their religion undermine community cohesion”, 72 per cent thought that “all state funded schools should operate recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on grounds of religion or belief and 75 per cent that “all state funded schools should teach an objective and balanced syllabus for education about a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs”.
On that evidence alone, it would be easy to assume that changing the way that faith schools can operate would be a firm fixture on election manifestos and leaders’ talking points. Yet the reality is that — though important — the future of faith schools is one of those issues that gets drowned out at election time.
To the extent that it is mentioned, it is in the form of reassurances from party leaders to the more faithful of the party faithful, that schools with a religious character are valued and will be left alone, unquestioned and unchanged.
Why is it so? There is a belief that those opposed to any reform of faith schools are a more definable, targetable constituency than the majority who think that things should change. It may be that there are religious voters in some swing constituencies (though researchers say there is no significant 'religious vote' in Britain). Perhaps more influential, is the knowledge that the debate on faith schools can quickly become polarised: no politician wants to risk being portrayed as anti-religious at a time when every vote counts.
Thirdly, there is the fact that many parents feel torn between principle and pragmatism when it comes to school admissions. Parents who are opposed to religious selection on principle may find that only way to secure their child a place at the local school is to change the church they attend or to start attending where previously they had not. Although a reformed system of school admissions would bring benefit overall, to those who have been well served by the current system a change could seem threatening.
Why is it important?
Although sometimes difficult, we believe that the debate about faith schools is vital. Crucially, we believe that by focusing on specific improvements on the law, it is possible to find a great degree of consensus, including between people of different beliefs and political backgrounds.
Schools act as a microcosm of society and a preparation for it. If the admissions procedure of a school prevents it from encompassing the diversity of its area and its RE curriculum never fully acknowledges the variety of people’s beliefs, then by these measures it has failed. For any politicians scanning the internet for the Next Big Idea then perhaps this is it: that inclusive schools are the best equipped to serve local communities and the national good.
The approach of the three main parties:
Allowed the creation of academy schools, many of which have been governed by religious bodies. Generally academy schools have been more inclusive in their admissions than many existing voluntary aided and voluntary controlled schools, but it is not clear how far (if at all) the is as a consequence of government action. Academy schools are allowed by law to discriminate in their admissions requirements by religion. While some religious academy schools follow the locally agreed syllabus, others have been criticised for excessive evangelism.
There has been no major change to the statutory basis of Religious Education, which is compulsory in all schools but does not form part of the National Curriculum and need not be balanced or broad.
The government fought to protect employment exemptions which mean that teachers can be discriminated against to a greater degree than employees in other organisations with a religious ethos. They also changed the law in 2006 to allow faith schools to discriminate against non-teaching staff by religion and against the head teachers of voluntary controlled schools with a religious character.
The passing of the School Admissions Code in 2002 and its subsequent tightening, has significantly improved the fairness of school admissions. In spring 2008, Ed Balls took the unusual step of incurring the ire of the faith schools lobby by criticising schools that broke the admissions code through practices such as interview and charges for applicants.
Attempted to make Sex and Relationship Education part of the National Curriculum, but late in the day gave a partial exemption to faith schools.
The Conservatives are planning radical reforms to the education system and the detail of how these changes will apply to faith schools is not fully known.
They plan to facilitate the creation of free schools, which would be government funded but independently run. It is envisaged that faith groups would be among those interested in running free schools and the terms on which they would be allowed to do so could greatly affect the consequences of the policy.
Accord is pleased to hear that free schools will not be allowed to select pupils according to religion. It is not yet known whether they will be able to discriminate against teachers.
The party is in favour of reducing the level of central control over the curriculum, but it is not yet known how this would be applied to Religious Education which is comulusory in all schools, though not part of the National Curriculum.
It is not expected that the Conservatives would prioritise changing the admissions rules of existing faith schools.
The party did not support moves to end the special exemption of teachers in faith schools from laws against discrimination in employment.
Michael Gove blocked the passing of legislation to make Sex and Relationship Education part of the National Curriculum because of plans to allow 15 year olds to attend the lessons against their parents’ wishes.
The party is against the opening of new schools that discriminate on religious grounds. It would require existing schools to demonstrate within five years that their admissions are inclusive, at [the] risk of losing state funding, although more detail on how this would work would be helpful.
The Liberal Democrats oppose religious employment conditions against all non-teaching staff and against all teachers except those responsible for religious instruction in faith schools.
The party supports allowing children of a sufficient maturity to withdraw themselves from collective worship.
The party supports broad guidance at national level to ensure “that religious education in state funded schools educates young people about people’s beliefs and practise in terms of the main religious belief systems. It should not specify what pupils themselves should believe and practise.”
The Liberal Democrats argued for the strengthening of provisions on Sex and Relationship Education and against special treatment for faith schools.
Alex Kennedy is co-ordinator of the Accord Coalition, the newtork promoting inclusive and community schooling and the reform of faith schools. www.accordcoalition.org.uk/