It was announced to the media this week that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and his wife are to send one of their children to a state funded faith secondary school. The school, the London Oratory, is a heavily oversubscribed Roman Catholic school, which selects pupils on faith grounds, and was the same school that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s sent two of his sons.
Responding to the news, Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, said ‘Many state funded faith schools do not select pupils on faith grounds, yet still maintain their ethos. The Deputy Prime Minister has successfully exercised his right of trying to send his child to a school with a religious character, and I urge him to remember the inequity of faith discrimination, the consequences for society of segregating young people on religious lines and advocate his Party’s policy surrounding faith selection within Government. So far little practical action has been taken to implement this policy, and we urge the Liberal Democrat Party to seek ways of doing so.’
In 2009 the Liberal Democrats adopted policy to ensure that schools within the state funded faith sector are inclusive. Their policy paper ‘Equity and Excellence’ committed the party to stopping schools being established that would select by faith, and requiring existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve delivery of these plans, and for funding to even be withdrawn where ‘inclusiveness’ was not demonstrated. The Party later reaffirmed its support for the policy paper at its 2010 Autumn Conference.
When the Coalition Government was formed in May 2010 the Coalition Agreement called for ‘inclusive admissions’ in as many new faith schools as possible. Since that time the model funding agreement for new faith Academy schools has required that they select no more than half their pupils on faith grounds, while the Education Act of 2011 created a presumption that meant, in practice, almost all new state funded schools would be Academies.
However, Richmond Borough Council managed to help in setting up a faith school that was able to side step the 50% religious limit last year, despite joint legal action by a local ecumenical campaign group endorsed by the Accord Coalition and the British Humanist Association. To the surprise of some, the Department for Education intervened in the legal case on the side of the Richmond Council, thereby helping to keep open a loophole to its 50% religious selection limit.
Last November Accord commissioned a ComRes survey showing that 73% of respondents agreed that ‘state funded schools, including state funded faith schools, should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’, half (50%) stated that they agreed ‘strongly’. Only 18% of respondents disagreed.
ComRes interviewed 2,008 adults online between 2nd and 4th November 2012. Data was weighted to be demographically representative of all British adults aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. The full survey results and field work data can be found here.
Identities in Transition: A Longitudinal Study of Immigrant Children, by Rupert Brown, Adam Rutland & 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)
Among the key findings of Social Capital, Diversity and Education Policy, by Professor Irene Bruegel of the London South Bank University Families & 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)