Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Accord



  Most schools with a religious character are currently able to use religious oversubscription criteria in their admissions arrangements. The government does not collect data on the use of religious admissions requirements but from independent research we know that they exist in over 90 per cent of religious voluntary aided secondary schools. The proportion of schools of other types with religious admissions criteria is lower, but, even so, at secondary level three fifths of voluntary controlled schools have religious admissions, as do 11 per cent of academies/city technology colleges and one per cent of foundation schools.[45]

  The proportions of voluntary controlled schools at primary level which select according to religion are thought to be significantly lower, but we are aware of no national statistics on religious admissions at primary level.

1.   Indirect social selection

  Research by Professor Anne West[46] of the LSE and by the Runnymede Trust[47] has found that the complex selection procedures are used by religious schools give a significant advantage to wealthier, more educated and more determined parents. In response to concerns about socially selective admissions arrangements, the government has made significant improvements to the School Admissions Code and strengthened the ability of the Schools Adjudicator to challenge unfair practices. While we support the changes that have been made to tackle social selection as far as they go, we believe that any state school admissions framework based on religious discrimination is unjust and outdated.

  Even if the new code were to be successful in eradicating practices such as pre-admission interviews and questions about the marital status of parents, it is highly likely that religious schools would retain a socially privileged intake. This is because surveys show that churchgoers are disproportionately middle class but, despite this, regular church attendance is considered an acceptable criterion in school admissions.[48] Additionally, within the various religious populations it is the most advantaged families who are most likely to apply faith schools, in particular those faith schools that are considered elite. Because of the influence of school league tables and school reputation it is easy for trends set in motion by differences in intake to become self-perpetuating.

2.   Indirect ethnic selection

  It is true that some religious schools have many non-white pupils, but the headline statistics on school denomination and ethnicity do not tell the whole story. Catholic schools, for example, are disproportionately based in urban areas and accept many students from African and Caribbean backgrounds. However, the proportion of Bangladeshi pupils taught in London religious secondary schools is just one per cent, or a quarter of that in non-denominational schools. There therefore a risk that in areas with a strong overlap between religious and ethnic identity, religious admissions procedures can reinforce ethnic segregation, a problem highlighted in the Cantle Report. Furthermore, those black ethnicity pupils who do attend faith schools are less likely to be free school meal eligible or to have low prior attainment than those in community schools.[49]

3.   Religious selection

  The impact of religious admissions criteria on social and ethnic selection are very important, but they should not be allowed to obscure the problems directly caused for individuals and society by religious discrimination.

 (a)   Individuals

  For parents who are unable to meet the religious criteria of faith schools discrimination can greatly diminish school choice. It is the strength of community schools that they are open to all regardless of beliefs, but the consequence of the current system is that religious families usually have a greater choice of schools.

  Consider, for example, two families—one Catholic, the other not religious—who wish to send their daughter to a secondary school in Liverpool. Both families are happy to send their child to either a religious or a community school because both prioritise factors such as proximity to home, results and friendship groups over the denomination of the school. The prevalence of schools with religiously discriminatory admissions means that the religious family will have a greater choice of schools, even though the denomination of the school is of little consequence to them.

  In inner city areas of London and the North West, as well as in rural areas with a limited choice of schools, these problems are acute and cause great distress to parents who see no reason why their children's prospects should depend on their religious convictions, or lack of them.

  We would be interested to know the view of the JCHR on whether Article 14, Schedule 1 of the HRA read in conjunction with Article 2 Part 2, may be breached in cases where educational prospects and school choice are very severely limited for those of particular religious or non-religious beliefs.

 (b)   Society

  According to a recent poll conducted on behalf of the EHRC, religion is today thought to be a significantly more divisive factor in British society than race.[50]

  Guidance issued by the government and by non government bodies on the issue of community cohesion stresses the importance of overcoming religious, cultural and ethnic divisions through regular, meaningful contact between different groups.[51] The passing of a duty on schools to promote community cohesion was a small step forwards and has led to some worthwhile projects that seek to break down barriers between communities.

  However, religious (as opposed to cultural and ethnic) divisions between young people are unique because they are directly promoted through discriminatory school admission policies. It is notable that the duty to promote community cohesion—which itself resulted from the failure to pass a quota system to open up faith school admissions—has done virtually nothing to tackle directly discriminatory admissions policies. We question the wisdom of a set of policies that seek to ameliorate divisions within and between communities, while at the same time leaving state-funded schools free to discriminate. Direct discrimination by public bodies should be the first thing to be tackled, not the last.


Collective worship

  We welcome the work that that the JCHR has already conducted on the human rights implications of collective worship and Religious Education. While we agree that extending the ability to withdraw from worship to children of sufficient maturity would be a significant step forward, we favour the replacement of collective worship with inclusive assemblies. This is because an opt-out system provides no entitlement to alternative educational provision for those who opt out, whether this is an inclusive assembly or something else. More broadly, an opt out system is inherently divisive and negates the idea of assembly as a shared activity for the whole school.

Sex education

  Article 24 of the UNCRC recognises children's right to information to help them stay healthy but we believe that this is undermined by the current right of parents to withdraw their children from Sex and Relationships Education. Although relatively few children are withdrawn from SRE lessons, it is likely that many of those who are withdrawn do not receive adequate sex education at home either. We are also concerned about the right of religious schools to teach SRE in accordance with their religious ethos as this may affect the scope and objectivity of information given to students.

  In a document intended for schools in his diocese and beyond, the Catholic Bishop of Lancaster wrote that "the secular view on sex outside of marriage, artificial contraception, sexually transmitted disease, including HIV and AIDs, and abortion may not be presented as neutral information" [emphasis in original]. While the bishop is not entirely clear about what he considers the "secular" view on these issues to be, we believe that attitudes such as this can seriously weaken schools' attempts to provide comprehensive SRE.


  We remain concerned about homophobic bullying in faith schools. Research by Stonewall has shown that while homophobic bullying is a problem in many schools, it is a particular issue in schools with a religious character. Stonewall also found that victims of homophobic bullying are less likely to report incidents to teachers in faith schools and discovered incidences where schools and teachers used religious beliefs to justify inadequate responses to homophobic incidents.[52]

April 2009

45   Secondary school admissions in England: Policy and Practice, Prof Anne West, Eleanor Barham and Audrey Hind, March 2009 Back

46   IbidBack

47   Faith Schools: Right to Divide?, Dr Rob Berkeley, December 2008, Back

48   A 2009 Tearfund survey found that 26 per cent of British people attend church at least once a year, with "AB social class (34 per cent) and owner occupiers without a mortgage (32 per cent) among the groups overrepresented and "C2 social class (21 per cent); DE social class (22 per cent); single people (19 per cent) and council tenants (19 per cent)" among those underrepresented. It should also be noted that only 15 per cent of adults attend church at least every month, but many school admissions policies require regular church attendance at a particular church over the course of several years. In an oversubscribed school, such policies will inevitably select out all but the most religious and/or most organised and determined parents Back

49   "Religious Schools in London: School Admissions, Religious Composition and Selectivity " Allen, R. and West, A. (2009) Oxford Review of Education, forthcoming (p12). Back

50   "Three in five (60 per cent) of the general population and two in three (66 per cent) of those in ethnic minority groups think religion is more divisive than race today." Back

51   Page 10, Guidance on the Duty to Promote Community Cohesion, quoting the Commission on Integration and Cohesion per cent20on per cent20the per cent20duty per cent20to per cent20promote per cent20community per cent20cohesion per cent20pdf.pdf Back

52   The School Report Stonewall, 2007, and The Teachers' Report, Stonewall, 2009 Back

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