London (CNSNews.com) – A controversial plan by the British government to allow government-funded religious schools to discriminate even more on the basis of faith has been welcomed by leading churches, but drew an outcry from civil society and secular groups.
In England, according to the latest statistics, almost 7,000 out of just over 20,000 public schools are now “faith schools.” Though required to follow the national curriculum set down by the Department for Education, they are allowed to have a religious character and can hire staff based on their beliefs.
Schools are not allowed to teach creationism in science classes but may include it as part of religious education. Similarly, government guidelines state that teaching about marriage must be “sensitive” and “reasonable” but no school is under a duty to support or endorse same-sex unions.
The Church of England runs 67 percent of these schools, with Roman Catholic schools making 29 percent of the rest and only a small sliver divided up by other religions.
Under current rules, most of these schools must offer a place to any local child regardless of their denomination and can only be selective if there are more applicants than spaces available.
In addition, in changes first introduced in 2010, in cases where there are too many students wanting to get in, most new government-funded faith schools can only select half of their pupils based on religion.
Along with other religious groups, the Roman Catholic Church has been particularly critical of this rule, saying it is preventing it from opening new schools which, in turn, would be forced to turn away young Catholics.
In a speech last month Prime Minister Theresa May, herself the daughter of a Church of England clergyman, announced that she wanted to get rid of the 50 percent cap in order to see more new faith schools opened.
As part of a larger program of education reform, she said that faith schools are popular, offer an outstanding education, and should be encouraged.
“Fundamentally I believe it is wrong to deny families the opportunity to send their children to a school that reflects their religious values, if that’s what they choose,” she said. “And it’s right to encourage faith communities, especially those with a proven record of success, like the Catholics, to play their full part in building the capacity of our schools.”
A government consultation on May’s proposed education reforms is now underway, with a report expected in the spring.
While the Church of England and the Catholic Church welcomed these proposals, along with figures from other denominations, secular organizations charged that abandoning the 50 percent cap would be a polarizing move.
The British Humanist Association said that its analysis of the latest school census in January showed that diversity was significantly better at new Christian schools opened since 2010 than in older ones without the cap.
Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education chairman Rabbi Jonathan Romain said the new policy would be make schools less inclusive, the opposite of what May said that she wanted to see.
‘In a country that is becoming increasingly diverse, this is exactly the wrong time to give faith schools the power to divide and segregate children,” he said. “There is a strong argument for extending the 50 percent religious admissions cap to all schools, not abolishing it.”
Paul Pettinger, a coordinator with the Accord Coalition, said that studies have shown that mixed schooling is particularly good for integration.
In addition, he said that competition for spaces has led to a phenomenon of parents feigning belief in a religion, simply to get their children into a good school.
For people who are religious, Pettinger said that watching some middle-class parents trying to rig the system was dispiriting.
“For people of faith, that’s quite awkward,” he said. “They don’t want faith schools to incentivize people to be insincere.”
Dating back centuries, Christian churches have played a pivotal role in British education. Between 1944 and 1988, religion education classes were the only compulsory subject in British schools.