New study urges reform of faith schools to better serve individual pupils and society

October 11, 2018

A new investigation has concluded the legal and policy framework around faith schools in England is overly deferential towards parental choice and gives too little consideration to the interests of individual pupils and wider society. The study ‘How to regulate faith schools‘ is the culmination of a three year project into faith schools policy undertaken by a group of academics based at Warwick University.

Published yesterday, the study explores philosophical principles that should inform education. The authors warn schools policy is threatened by narrow interests and finds current legislation does not properly uphold the autonomy and agency of individual pupils. It also argues the state should do more to ensure faith schools better promote civil and moral capabilities that support living in a diverse liberal democracy. Its key policy recommendations include:

  • extending to all state funded faith schools the current 50% religious discrimination in admissions cap that currently only applies to faith free schools, to help promote greater ethic mixing in the school system
  • permitting faith schools to provide collective worship but only outside of normal school hours
  • prohibiting state funded schools from providing directive religious teaching that seeks to achieve religious commitment
  • providing all children, including those who are home educated, with an entitlement to an education about civic, religious, ethical and moral values, which would seek to motivate children to comply with democratic institutions, as well as respect and treat equally those of different backgrounds and lifestyles
  • independent religious schools should comply with the same regulations as state funded ones if they wish to continue to qualify for charitable status

Chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, the Reverend Stephen Terry, said ‘The report highlights how England’s school system is treating people unfairly and not better promoting social cohesion because of vested interests. It provides a refreshing examination of the principles that should underpin education policy and puts forward a range of workable solutions. If the school system is to be more inclusive and operate in less anti-social ways then these recommendations must be taken seriously by government.’

The new report demonstrates a consensus that has emerged in civil society about how religion and belief at state funded schools should be renegotiated. In 2015 the two year long Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life published it findings. The Commission was supported by the Woolf Commission and Chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss. It concluded that requirements for compulsory worship in schools should be repealed; the breadth and content of many religious education (RE) syllabuses was inadequate; and that religious selection in faith school admissions was unfair, risked being socially damaging and should be reduced.

This summer saw publication of a report calling for urgent reform of the relationship between religion and schools in England from national religion and society expert, Professor Linda Woodhead, and former Secretary of State for Education, the RT Hon Charles Clarke. They called for faith school providers to reduce the number of schools that religiously select pupils; for legal arrangements around collective worship to be changed so schools do not have to provide it; and for pupils at all schools to have a minimum entitlement to a broad and balanced RE that is nationally and chiefly determined by professional RE educators.

Last month the two year long Commission on Religious Education offered its final report. The project was conducted by a prestigious mix of national RE experts. Among its key recommendations were that all school pupils in England should be given a nationally prescribed core entitlement to an education about religious and non-religious beliefs.

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