Church of England Diocese supports inclusive admissions for its Voluntary Controlled schools

November 12, 2021

The Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich has lent its support to a Suffolk County Council proposal to set religiously inclusive admission arrangements for local faith based Voluntary Controlled schools. Voluntary Controlled faith schools are fully state funded and – unlike other types of state funded faith school, which all determine their own pupil selection criteria – have their admissions policy set by their local authority responsible for education.

Sometimes local authorities, like Suffolk County Council, permit their Voluntary Controlled faith schools to select pupils by faith when oversubscribed. Research undertaken by the Accord Coalition in 2011 revealed that of the then 137 local authorities in England and Wales responsible for education with one or more Voluntary Controlled faith school, 43 permitted religious discrimination of some kind in the oversubscription criteria of these schools. All 35 of Suffolk’s Voluntary Controlled faith schools are Church of England.

The Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich’s Director of Education, Jane Sheat, has been quoted in today’s Church Times supporting the County Council’s plan, saying “We’re very clear that church schools serve their local communities, and we’re not aware of many other areas in England where faith-based over-subscription criteria are used in voluntary controlled schools … It doesn’t feel appropriate any longer to be the only area [in the Diocese] where church attendance would potentially enable families to get a place in their school.” Despite this public statement, in its formal admissions guidance the Diocese currently refrains from asking its other state funded schools to avoid selecting pupils by faith.

Under the statutory School Admissions Code, state funded faith schools that set their own admission arrangements and which operate religiously selective criteria are all required to have regard for admissions guidance about such selection from their religious authority. Where a faith school seeks to provide privileged access to those of their own faith, they must also consult their religious authority about it. The recognised religious authority of Church of England schools is their local diocese.

Chair of the Accord Coalition, the Revd Stephen Terry, said ‘Suffolk County Council and the Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich are to be congratulated for recognising that religiously discriminatory and segregationist admission policies are not appropriate in today’s diverse society. Their example should prompt the remaining local authorities that permit Voluntary Controlled faith schools to operate a religiously exclusive admissions policy to reconsider.’

‘Jane Sheat’s remarks as reported are very welcome and most encouraging, although it is disappointing that, despite having the power to make its other state funded schools refrain from selecting pupils by faith, the Diocese has not yet done so. We urge it to extend to its other education outlets the enlightened approach it has taken in respect of its Voluntary Controlled Schools. To do so would align very encouraging words with comprehensive actions.’

The Accord Coalition has long been concerned that some Church of England officials have overclaimed the inclusivity of many of their schools and not done more to reform them. Research that the campaign undertook in 2017 revealed that only 1 in 8 Church of England dioceses advised their state funded schools to not select pupils by faith, despite national Church officials having repeatedly and publicly framed their schools as ones that do not seek to serve Christians ahead of other local families.

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