‘Spending time in church to gain a school place has become the religious equivalent of paying cash for honours’ writes Accord Chair

September 2, 2013

Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, has written a powerful piece against religious discrimination in faith school admissions for the Guardian’s comment and political opinion website site Comment is Free today, which is reproduced below:


Faith schools cannot continue their immoral policy of discrimination

“How are the mighty fallen!” is a biblical verse that will not only be well-known by the Roman Catholic state school, the London Oratory, but now applies directly to them. The school – famously chosen by both Tony Blair and Nick Clegg for their sons – has just been criticised by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator for breaching the schools admissions code and ordered to change its policy.

The school’s criteria for entry included parents participating in church life for at least three years beforehand through activities such as singing in the choir, serving at the altar or arranging flowers. There is nothing wrong with these practices – and many would consider them very worthy – but they should be pertinent only to the individual concerned, not determine whether the children of such parents qualify for a place in a state school.

This case was specific to the London Oratory, but the issue is much wider, for such breaches are endemic to the way faith schools operate. Unlike any other state-funded institution in society, they are allowed to base admission on belief. Spending time in church to gain a place has become the religious equivalent of paying cash for honours.

It would be unthinkable – not to mention illegal – for entry to hospitals or libraries to depend on a person’s faith. Why should schools be privileged? It is a legal anomaly that is immoral and should be rectified. The fact that such discrimination is permissible because of specific exemptions in the Equality Act speaks volumes and effectively says: we know this departs from our normal standards.

Equally remarkable is that it is such a religious own goal, for it reverses the original mission of churches to embrace the whole of society, not withdraw into itself and cater for a particular constituency. Alongside these theoretical objections are the negative practical consequences, which apply also to schools of other faiths: they segregate their children, isolating them from those of a different background. That is not healthy for the children concerned, nor for society as a whole.

The better faith schools will teach about other belief systems, but that is no substitute for the children interacting on a daily basis. It is tragic that the last 20 years have seen an explosion in schools from the minority faiths – especially Jewish and Muslim, but now also Hindu and Sikh. Children that used to grow up alongside each other, are now becoming strangers. The more multifaith and multiethnic Britain becomes, the more schools should be where children mix and meet and learn about each other in the interests of social cohesion.

From an educational point of view, it is a perverse lesson that we are teaching children – saying everyone is equal, yet then separating them by faith groups and thereby creating an “us and them” culture. Yes, it was churches that pioneered schools in Britain centuries ago – and all credit to them for doing so – but that is no argument for maintaining a socially divisive educational policy today. The Fair Admissions Campaign has recently been formed to tackle the issue, uniting both religious and secular groups who object to its continuing presence.

Faith should have a role in schools – with multifaith studies taught both as an academic subject and to advance understanding of one’s different-faith neighbour – but it should not be allowed to discriminate between children.

In contrast to the Oratory, some Church of England schools in the Diocese of London have decided that while they will maintain a particular ethos, they will be open to all in their local area. I bet God prefers them.



Accord helped to co-found the Fair Admissions Campaign in June, a new single issue and ecumenical campaign focused solely on reducing and preventing state funded faith schools in England and Wales selecting pupils on the ground of religion, and the unwelcome consequences of this selection in terms of religious, ethnic, social and economic segregation. The Campaign lists ten reasons to oppose religious selection by schools in pupil admissions here.

A November 2012 ComRes poll commissioned by the Accord Coalition found 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: http://accordcoalition.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Databank-of-Independent-Evidence-on-Faith-Schools-Jan-2013.pdf.

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)

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