Theresa May’s plans to relax faith school admissions will do nothing for social justice

Mixed response to May’s faith school plan. shutterstock

With competition for school places set to intensify over the next decade, the government’s recent proposal to relax admissions rules for new faith schools has been met with mixed responses. While the move to allow new faith schools to select all of their pupils by religion has been welcomed by many religious schools, others have expressed fears that allowing schools to select their entire intake by faith will lead to increased segregation.

The 50% cap on religious admissions was introduced in 2010, and has led to a situation where new faith schools (post 2010) can only select half of their pupils based on religion, whereas established faith schools (pre 2010) have continued to be able to religiously select up to 100% of their intake. Although not all of the schools that are still able to religiously choose all of their pupils actually do so.

In her “great meritocracy” speech, Theresa May argued that the current 50% cap on these new faith schools “is failing in its objective to promote integration” because minority faith schools do not attract pupils of other or no faith.

And in one sense, this is correct. Data from the School Census shows there is little ethnic mixing in minority religious free schools. These are schools for groups that tend to experience high levels of societal discrimination – such as Muslim or Jewish schools. The communities these schools serve are often stigmatised by society – so it is foolish to think that a cap alone could solve problems faced by these groups.

This said, data from religiously selective secondary schools shows that Christian free schools which have the 50% cap in place actually have greater levels of ethnic diversity than fully selective Christian schools.

Religious selection

To allow new schools to religiously select 100% of their pupils is not only problematic in terms of social integration, it is also unfair. Particularly given that faith schools claim to offer better quality education and higher attainment levels.

What’s more, the way in which faith schools deliver the religious aspect of the curriculum has started to change. Although faith schools aim to provide a good general education and introduce children to the beliefs and practices of a particular faith, many opponents claim that the second aim is “indoctrinatory”. To try and address this, faith educators have increasingly turned away from traditional “confessional” religious instruction and have instead moved towards an education that considers religion from a more open perspective – allowing children to make up their own minds.

The government’s decision to lift the 50% cap on faith-based admissions to new free schools prompted differing reactions. Shutterstock

This means the education that many faith schools now offer is more accessible to pupils with other religions, or to those with no faith. And recent research shows that the “faith aspect” of faith schooling matters far less to those contemplating school choice than academic standards, location or discipline.

Priority pupils

The prime minister has failed to notice this change in attitudes towards faith education and has even cited the Catholic Church’s view on the cap as another reason to abandon it. The church argues that not prioritising children from Catholic backgrounds contravenes the rules of the church – known as “Canon law”.

The church’s position eventually led to the abandonment of a free school application from a fee paying school – St Mary’s College in Crosby. In this case, the Archdiocese of Liverpool refused to support a bid because of the cap.

But the claim about Canon law is disputed – with critics noting there are many non-selective Catholic schools elsewhere in the world. Private Catholic schools are also far less likely to select on religious grounds than those in the state sector.

May made the announcement as part of a major overhaul of secondary education. Shutterstock

The abandonment of the cap is based on a concern to meet a need for additional school places, but the logic is flawed. This is because the school places the policy will provide will only be available to a small subset of pupils – and the families who need the places most will probably not benefit from these new schools at all.

Evidence suggests that – despite the Catholic Church’s claim its schools are more socially and ethnically diverse than the national average – faith schools are more likely to admit pupils from affluent families or with higher levels of prior attainment than nondenominational schools.

Exclusive education

It is clear that advocates of faith based education now face a dilemma. Either they maintain that faith schools can provide “non-indoctrinatory” education – which is accessible, attractive and valuable to families of all denominations. Or they argue for a distinctive form of religious instruction – which would only be suitable for children of faith. Only schools of the second sort can adequately justify religiously selective admissions. But given that public attitudes to the funding of separate schools have hardened in recent years– and the extent to which indoctrination is considered “morally unacceptable” – such schools would be unlikely to win public support.

Admissions policies fundamentally determine who becomes part of a school’s student body. So the role that higher levels of religious selection could play in worsening social injustice – by “creaming off” the best, most motivated or wealthiest pupils – should not be underestimated.

If the positive outcomes associated with faith schools could be directly linked to the religiosity of pupils, it might be possible to defend the policy to admit higher proportions of children from faith backgrounds.

But, in the absence of compelling evidence to support this, the only other way to justify religious selection is to show there is something distinctive about faith education – something which makes it exclusively of worth to pupils from religious families. Unfortunately for supporters of fully religiously selective schools, it’s difficult to show this is the case.