Faith schools are an integral part of the British education system and the vast majority, in my view, do an outstanding job. I speak from experience as both a pupil (I attended a state funded Catholic comprehensive school) and as a professional (I am a former senior leader in a Catholic high school). However there have long been concerns about how some faith schools operate in terms of admissions. A couple of years ago the interim report by the then schools adjudicator Philip Hunter looked into claims that faith schools had been breaking laws aimed at making admissions fairer. This was after the DfE had come across a "significant number" of faith schools apparently breaking the statutory admissions code. Breaches included parents being asked for money and personal and financial details. There were also concerns that faith schools had not been taking enough children who are vulnerable including those with special needs and those eligible for free school meals.
Several years on and little seems to have changed. So here are three practical suggestions for reform:
1) Insist that all state funded voluntary aided (VA) schools set aside a minimum of 20% of its annual intake for the pupils of parents of other faiths or none.
2) Require all VA schools to publish their admission figures (criterion referenced) annually.
3) Require all VA schools to provide local authorities with action plans (updated annually) as to how the school will actively seek to promote community cohesion.
At present, faith schools may select 100% of pupils from parents who share their faith. To be fair, most religious primary schools try to serve their local neighbourhood and often accept children of other faiths and of none. Like non-religious schools, many of them do a brilliant job and some do not. All religious secondary schools give some preference to children of their faith. Some try to be inclusive and accept a significant proportion of children from other faiths. Many do not. I am firmly of the view that opening up faith schools to the pupils of parents of different faiths (or none) would be a positive move towards greater social and educational inclusion. A faith school that is true to its core values and principles will surely be one that seeks to be open and accessible to all pupils, one that would pay particular attention to the needs of the marginalised and the poor.
The problem is that the forces of conservatism that dominate many faith groups are deeply resistant to change. For example, the Catholic Education Service (CES) has, in the past, argued that it is spurious to suggest that removing the absolute right of a religious community to educate its own children by introducing a percentage non-faith quota for church schools would aid social cohesion. As someone whose teaching career was solely in the VA RC sector I would suggest that it is neither spurious nor indeed is it contrary to the mission of the church itself. Indeed I would go further and challenge the CES to publish a complete list of state funded Catholic schools (secondaries in particular) where it is already custom and practice that between 20%-30% of pupils come from other faith backgrounds or none.
The challenge to the various faith groups in Britain must centre on the type of educational provision they would be happy to support and indeed help shape in 21st century Britain. For me the only truly progressive, inclusive and comprehensive system would be one that intrinsically values and caters for all pupils regardless of their spiritual, economic or social capital? What we require is an education system in which every child is treasured, every child learns to value diversity and to appreciate the variety of contributions that each of them makes to our culture and where every child understands that he/she shares the potential and the frailty of the human condition.
The opening up faith schools to pupils from more diverse cultural, social and religious backgrounds would be one small but significant step towards giving parents real choice in our increasingly complex system of state schooling.