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Elder Daughter was about three, I suppose, and I had taken her to see my doctor for a routine check-up.  My doctor asked me where I was going to send her to school.  Without giving it a thought, I named the school – a small, middle class state-funded primary school attached to the church which we were attending fairly regularly.  

“My children cannot go to that school”, she said. 

I was baffled.  I asked why not. 

“Because we are Jews”, she said. 

I looked at her, stunned into silence. I have never forgotten that conversation.  My daughter did go to that school, but only for a term.  My doctor has just retired, having worked to pay for private education for her three sons. 

We live in a very pleasant pocket in a generally poor part of town. We live outside the catchment area for the best secondary school in town and in the catchment area for one of the poorest, sink schools in town.  The neighbouring friend with four children is, however, lucky.  Not because she can afford private education, but because all her children have Catholic baptism certificates and, therefore, their children can go to the excellent state-funded Catholic secondary school the other side of town. 

Of around 21,000 schools in the UK, nearly 7,000 are “faith schools” funded by the state.  The huge majority of faith schools are Church of England or Catholic primary schools. Other faith schools have only been allowed since 1997 whilst all other Protestant church schools surrendered their status as long ago as 1902.  All faith schools have special freedoms including having regard to a person’s faith when making a staff appointment and determining the admissions policy.  Only the Church of England has agreed that any new Anglican schools must as of this year allow one quarter of children to be selected on a non-faith basis.  The Catholic Church continues to maintain that it will first and foremost plan new schools in order to meet the needs and demands of Catholic parents.

Faith background of children between 4 and 15 (2001 Census) 

The 2001 Census showed a total of about 5.7 million children between 4 and 15, of whom just over 5 million were Christian and almost 400,000 Muslim.  The 2005 School Census showed about 1.7 million pupils in state-maintained Christian faith schools and only 1,770 pupils in state-maintained Muslim faith schools.  This means about 30% of Christians and 44% of Jews are educated in their own faith schools compared to only 0.4% of Muslim children.  There are no Sikh or Hindu state-funded schools though a Hindu faith school will open in 2008.  There is one Greek Orthodox school near Croydon, Surrey.

Despite legislation which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, despite being a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits such discrimination, despite having brought those European rights home in the Human Rights Act 1998 which also outlaws discrimination, the UK government not only tolerates faith schools, but funds state schools, encourages faith schools even. 

A very recent document presented jointly by the government and the faith school providers, is disingenuous if not downright misleading.  In relation to admission, the “Faith in the system” report says this:

 “We are committed to fair and open admission arrangements which are easy for parents to understand and that contribute to fair access for all families.  The Government recognises and supports the right of faith schools that are their own admission authority to give priority for some or all of their places to children from the faith concerned when they are oversubscribed.  The Government also recognises that where there are relatively few maintained schools of a particular faith to meet the demand for education in accordance with the tenets of that faith, those schools are more likely to be oversubscribed by children of the faith and have less scope to admit children not of the faith.  However the Government welcomes the willingness of the faith school providers who have relatively few maintained schools in relation to the demand for education in accordance with the tenets of that faith to admit pupils not of the faith where circumstances allow.” (p16, my italics) 

A recent review of government policy in relation to faith schools allowed the school governors to retain the right to set admissions policies.  Some faith schools in some areas have enlightened admissions policies.  Some faith schools are faith-blind in their admissions policies.  But many are not. The question of whether a school should be able to teach a faith to their pupils is not at issue here.  What is at issue is the right to a good education irrespective of your religion.  If the good education is reserved exclusively for Christians because of an admission policy that discriminates against those whose parents have a different faith, or no faith, then that admissions policy needs to be changed or the public funding withdrawn. 

In the town of 170,000 people where we live, there are many primary schools, but the best primary schools are those named after the saints, Mary, Margaret, John and so on.  Most of those primary schools perform substantially above the national average for attainment.  Most of those primary schools are heavily oversubscribed.  It is impossible, in most of those primary schools, for a child who is not baptised into a particular faith or who does not have a close connection with a particular church, to get into the school. 

Our choice of church had, like many other parents, been determined, at least partly, with an eye to securing our daughter a place at the school.  That school that my elder daughter went to now has a new headmistress and the admissions policy has changed since we applied to the school.  Now twenty places out of thirty are allocated on a sliding points scale which depends on the regularity of attendance at the attached church or another Christian church.  Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists can all compete for the remaining ten places, with priority being given to those who already have a sibling at the school.   I wonder, though, if it isn’t just window dressing.  It seems to me that if you already have a sibling at the school, the odds are that you are a Christian anyway.  Children of other faiths are still likely to come some way down the list for those ten places. 

The argument from equality says that the present situation is unfair.  Access to state-funded education should not be dependent upon your faith.  The argument from partiality says that parents want to educate their children with others like them, with others that share the same faith and are unlikely to support a government that removes the privileged position of Christian children to better education.  British parents are already complaining that their children have to compete for the precious spaces with recently arrived religious immigrants particularly from Portugal and Poland and from Africa. 

The UK government, however, even goes so far as to maintain that it is a duty of the government under Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights to respect the rights of parents to ensure education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.  While it is impossible to deny that the government is bound by the Convention, nowhere does this require the government to fund faith schools. Article 2 is framed in negative terms – that the State shall not deny, rather than that the State shall guarantee respect for the right at issue.  Specifically the Council of Europe guide to the Convention says “in general, this means the State is under no obligation to provide certain kinds of educational opportunities or to guarantee that every individual receives the education he or she desires” which is not what the “Faith in the system” report says.   The European Court of Human Rights has previously found that this “negative” duty does mean that education should be available to all children without violation of the discrimination provision of Article 14 of the Convention.  Article 14 provides:

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

It is unlawful under Section 49 of the Equality Act 2006 to discriminate against a child in relation to school admission on the basis of his or her religion.  But the Act provides an exemption for faith schools.  No such exemption exists in relation to the European Convention, however.

The government’s argument goes – if faith schools are good, so much the better: if children of other faiths are ruled out, then that is just too bad.   Is the answer a compromise that recognises partiality but moves towards equality, if equality is not a reasonably achievable goal? 

I imagine there are several factors at play in maintaining the status quo.  Firstly, whatever the inequalities, the faith schools deliver a very high quality product which is generally the envy of other schools.  The Government does not want to lose the ethos of these schools, nor the comparatively well educated future workers that the schools produce. The Government’s answer to allegations of unfairness to children of other faiths (not those of no faith, however) is to promote the creation of new faith schools, including Muslim and Hindu faith schools because, says the report, it recognises that the provision of such schools could “provide an important contribution to integration and empowerment of these communities”.   How the provision of such segregating schools contributes to integration is something which the government alone knows.   Nor am I persuaded.  The government’s policy depends on religious minorities living together in large enough numbers to justify a school, which is not always the case nor necessarily a good thing.

I have a friend who is Muslim and who took over from my Jewish doctor at our practice.  Her children could not go to most of the state-funded Christian schools in this town either.  I am ashamed.    

More:

Department for Education and Skills, School Admissions Code

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