I am writing in response to the consultation on proposed changes to the School Admissions Code. The proposals outlined in the consultation are supposedly designed ‘to support our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children’. However, I am deeply concerned that they leave a number of key issues with the Code completely untouched and, for this reason, any revised version of the Code that is based on these proposals will continue to fail such children. On this basis, my response largely focuses on these gaps rather than the questions posed in the consultation document itself.
The main issue to note is that, beyond a minor amendment clarifying ‘the ability of designated faith schools to prioritise children of the faith, including over those children who are either looked after children or previously looked after children, but are not of the faith’, the legal right of religious schools to select pupils on religious grounds is not considered at all. This is a problem not only because separation of this kind works against social cohesion and the ability of different groups to live well together, but because it actively discriminates against the most disadvantaged children and their families, including looked after and previously looked after children.
To fully support vulnerable children to access school places, the Government must immediately scrap the legal provisions that allow faith schools to prioritise all children who share the faith over looked after and previously looked after children who don’t in their admissions policies. Better yet, it should abolish discriminatory faith-based admissions policies altogether and ensure that all children are treated equally irrespective of religion or belief.
Each of the reasons for this conclusion are described in more detail below:
Religious selection disadvantages the poor and ethnic minorities
There is a great deal of robust evidence showing that religious selection not only separates pupils by religion, but also along ethnic and socio-economic lines, as well as by prior attainment. In practice, this means that disadvantaged, vulnerable pupils are less likely to get a place at these schools, which tend to be less representative of their local areas than schools that do not select in this way.
As studies that control for pupil background show, it is this selectivity, rather than a faith ethos, that accounts for any enhanced levels of attainment or performance in national league tables. However, this data tends to fuel the idea that faith schools are ‘better’ than other types of school and encourages parents (particularly the highly educated and those from more advantaged socio-economic groups) to use all the means at their disposal to gain a place, thus perpetuating what is effectively a self-fulfilling prophecy. To put it another way, faith schools are socio-economically selective, because their religious admissions policies enable them to skim the richest, most advantaged pupils from their areas while the rest fail to meet their more complex admissions criteria.
Religious selection has a damaging effect on social cohesion
In addition to the negative impact the segregation caused by religious selection has on the ability of individual children and their families to secure a school place, it also has a huge impact on communities, which are more likely to be fractured when children are denied the opportunity to mix with others who are different from themselves. Research shows that insufficient opportunity to mix in this way, robs individuals of the meaningful interactions necessary to build sustainable inter-communal relationships. Indeed, research from a team at the University of Oxford and published on the DfE’s own website in 2017 shows that pupils in ethnically mixed schools are more trusting and have more positive views of children from different backgrounds than do pupils in segregated schools. Elsewhere, the authors of that same study argue that ‘faith schools, to the extent that they are segregated, deprive young people of the opportunity to mix across ethnic and religious lines’ in a manner that thwarts positive attitudes to members of so-called ‘outgroups’.
If we are to have a tolerant society in which everyone is treated equally, it is imperative that our schools cultivate positive attitudes to others and eliminate prejudice, particularly towards marginalised and disadvantaged groups. They simply cannot do this while discriminatory faith-based admissions policies remain the norm.
Religious selection disadvantages looked after and previously looked after children
Setting aside the general impact religious selection has on a variety of disadvantaged groups, given the focus of the consultation is on the most vulnerable children in society, including looked after and previously looked after children, it is shocking to note that the proposals leave faith schools free to discriminate against such pupils in their admissions. As the proposed clarification to the Code on this issue makes clear, these schools have the ability to prioritise all children who share the faith of the school over looked after and previously looked after children who don’t, meaning that these vulnerable children are placed to the back of the queue for school places merely because of their religion or belief.
Although schools with religious character may choose not to use this legal right, a great many do. To consult on changes to the Code designed to support the most vulnerable but leave this provision untouched represents a huge oversight that should be corrected immediately. Whatever one’s views on whether religious selection should be permitted more generally, it is clear that state-funded schools should be expected to prioritise all children who are or were in care rather than drawing up a faith-based hierarchy according to which some are given this priority and others are not.
With this in mind, I strongly urge you to reconsider the provisions in the Code that permit religious discrimination and, at the very least, ensure that all looked after and previously looked after children are treated equally regardless of their background.
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