An end to religious discrimination in our schools

This Sunday, Conference will decide our party’s policy on state-funded faith schools – and in particular on whether schools should be able to select children on the basis of their religion or belief.

I would like to think this would be an uncontentious issue.

Surely we are defined as a party by our rejection of discrimination, and by our determination to oppose entrenched privilege and inequality.

And yet there are some within this party who believe that our children should be segregated by their religion – so that Catholic children only play and learn with other Catholic children, Jewish children only play and learn with other Jewish children, and so on.   And that the Jewish child whose local state school is in the same road but happens to be a Catholic school should be barred from that school because they are Jewish.  

So we will be asked by some to support Option B: unrestricted religious segregation in state-funded faith schools, on the basis that it will be all right as long as they are prevented from using this as a proxy for other forms of discrimination, and are “socially and culturally inclusive”.

So it’s apparently OK for the state to segregate on the basis of religion, as long as it isn’t also discriminating in other ways such as wealth or race.

I hope Conference will reject this option overwhelmingly.

The state should not be in the business of segregating children by their religion – and if our party can bring an end to religious segregation in our schools then we will have achieved something great.

And then there’s Option C: discrimination light.

This will allow religious discrimination by faith schools – but not religious segregation.

It will keep the existing rules that allow some types of faith schools to select up to half their children on the basis of religion – and that will include many new faith schools.

But no school will be allowed to select more than half of its children by faith.

So the children who are of the wrong faith or belief will not be thrown out of the queue.  They will simply be sent to the back of the queue, while the children of the right faith go to the front.

So if you think that segregation is wrong, but discrimination is OK, then you should vote for Option C.

And, finally, there’s option A.

It’s the most straightforward option by far: an end to religious  discrimination in our state schools.

It offers us a country where no child can be turned away from their local state school simply because they are Jewish (or Muslim, or Hindu, or atheist – or even Catholic).

Your school could still have a religious ethos.  It could choose to hold acts of worship and to offer religious instruction, but your child would not be forced to participate and would be offered meaningful alternative activities.  And every school would still teach your child about religion and belief.

This is a policy that is for every parent, whatever their religious or non-religious beliefs may be.

It is a policy that we can be proud of.

* Toby Keynes is Chair of Humanist & Secularist Liberal Democrats and an activist in Croydon. He is not a blogger.

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  • Toby Keynes 16th Mar '17 - 1:27pm

    This issue is of very great importance to the many parents who fear that their children will be unable to get into their chosen school because they are of the “wrong” religion or belief.

    And so are many other aspects of education policy, which is why the Education Working Group is consulting on them right now, why there will be a consultative session at Conference tomorrow afternoon and why the Working Group is planning to produced an education policy paper and an education motion for debate at Autumn Conference.

  • The term “Faith Schools” is from New Labour. We need to distinguish it from “Church Schools”. A Faith School is one in which pupils one religious tradition predominates and is taught (with perhaps a nod to different traditions). A Church School (and I’m talking about the Church of England) is a school for everyone who lives within the bounds of a parish or nominated parishes. Yes, the ethos is Church of England but, in my experience, they are most often open and inclusive.

    Two points to note:

    1. They are not entirely state funded but are voluntary aided. When I was a chairman of governors of a church school the Diocese was responsible for 15% of capital costs and owned the land and buildings. The Church handed over much other land and many buildings (e,g. teacher training colleges) to the State as part of the 1944 settlement. The Church of England is not getting something for nothing. It has a long history of involvement in education and was providing education for the poor (the original Sunday Schools) long before the State.

    2. The key is the admissions policy for each school. I was once told that a lot of the trust deeds stating that the schools were for children in the parish or parishes were
    lost in the war. I know of one parish were the admissions policy was heavily in favour of churchgoers which was, I strongly suspect, in contravention of the original deeds. Reform should be concentrated on admissions policies. I write as a former chairman of admissions.

  • The Church of England Schools I have been involved with as a school governor bear no resemblance whatsoever to the caricature presented in this contribution to the debate. They have all been incredibly diverse and the holistic ethos is clearly a significant contributory factor to many Faith schools’ success also, and not merely in academic terms, an ethos actively sought out by many parents, including parents who do not profess a Faith at all.

  • Toby Keynes 16th Mar '17 - 3:18pm


    You don’t say explicitly whether your CofE schools operate faith-based selection policies, which is the key issue.

    Many very successful faith schools, especially CofE schools, do not discriminate on faith grounds at all; they choose instead to serve all of their local communities.

    This article is not about these schools, but I hope that the work they do will be highlighted during the debate.

  • Copying my comment from the other thread:

    My daughter had a choice of primary schools: CofE, CofE, CofE, or Catholic. Every one of them spent teaching time on the religion. They were quite happy to accept pupils from families of other religions, or non religious families. Those children still got taught about God in lessons.

    Until someone can convince me of the liberal case for forcing children to be indoctrinated into a religion neither they not their parents subscribe to, I will never support faith schools.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Mar '17 - 11:02pm

    Toby makes a very intense case for and against that which is unnecessary and inexplicable.

    There is no segregation in such schools. They take many pupils from various faiths or none.

    They provide that which many pupils and parents want.

    They are not churning out swivel eyed myopic fanatics. They churn out Liberal Democrats like me and Shirley Williams !

  • Robert Canning 17th Mar '17 - 8:41am

    There’s a still more straightforward option, which is to make all state schools secular. Promoting a religion is not education and should not be the task of the state education system. Churches, mosques, synagogues etc. are widely available for those who want their children to have a religious upbringing.

  • Toby Keynes 17th Mar '17 - 8:52am

    Lorenzo: “There is no segregation in such schools.”

    There are many schools that do not discriminate. Unfortunately, there are also many that do, and some that very deliberately only take children of the one faith (or even denomination). That is segregation. You can deny it, but it will not go away while it continues to be funded by the state.

  • David Hopps 17th Mar '17 - 9:09am

    Couldn’t agree more, Toby. Faith Schools are by nature discriminatory and potentially divisive.

  • Denis Loretto 17th Mar '17 - 9:11am

    While many CofE and Catholic schools have no doubt over the years developed in the “religion-lite” way described by their advocates it seems to me that state-funded faith schools cannot be limited to those institutions. I cannot see how a general policy of permitting state-funded faith schools can possibly avoid illiberal outcomes in many cases.

    On St Patrick’s Day of all days my mind is drawn to my native province of Northern Ireland. I know it will be argued that it is a special case but in these days of increasing (and very largely healthy) development of communities containing many cultures and religious faiths are we really saying that separate schooling is a good way forward? Here is the Northern Irish organisation I support. It has an uphill struggle but has managed to achieve over 60 successful integrated schools across the province – and counting. For me this is the way forward.

  • Peter Watson 17th Mar '17 - 10:30am

    @Jennie “Copying my comment from the other thread”
    This is a very interesting topic but I think the debate is weakened by having two parallel threads.
    It does seem a very good idea to publish two articles simultaneously which put opposite sides of an argument, but could I suggest to LDV that in future the site finds a way to juxtapose such counterviews with a single discussion thread beneath them.

  • Denis Loretto 17th Mar '17 - 10:47am

    Some of the argument in favour of state-funded faith schools could be summarised as “many faith schools do their best to avoid being faith schools.” Could someone explain what then is the purpose of those religious organisations which seek to set up such schools?

  • As long as there are Church of England state schools, every other type of faith state school must be allowed under equality legislation.

    I would question why there is a need to cling on to the CofE state schools to the detriment of fair access to education for all. If CofE school status was removed, the teachers will not suddenly become useless and the school ethos will not change. So why is there such a fear of having a truly secular state education system?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Mar '17 - 1:48pm

    Sorry to have to say it Toby, but that does not in my view, necessarily mean I , would say that what is called it by some, is segregation. If something is wanted and is liked and is making the greatest number happy, it is better than not being happy.

    I prefer such a wide range of choices , everyone is happy. I am on the ultra choice wing of politics. One size fits all fits nobody , is my motto for the only Liberalism worth anything !

    I do not understand how anyone can interpret the defence of so called faith schools by Liberals or other liberal minded , as being other than defence of liberal attitudes to religion. I would not call it segregation for pupils who choose to be educated amongst fellows of their faith as segregation, unless in areas where they see nobody of another faith, in which case they would do that even in their local state school of a secular sort too, if that was the demographic profile.

    Paul, as often, gets to the nub , by presenting facts based on figures.

    I have only facts based on experience. And views based on a liberal attitude , to choice , freedom , and religion.

  • Faith based schools discriminate against the parents of prospective child applicants who have no faith or the “wrong faith” as prescribed by the school.
    This is outright religious discrimination and no different in principle from racial or homophobic discrimination.
    The basis for this is exemptions for schools with a religious character or ethos from section 85 of the Equality Act 2010, allowing for selective admissions
    based on religion or belief for schools in England and Wales.
    This exemption needs to be reversed by the politicians in our state schools which are in practice largely paid for by the taxpayer.
    State schools should be open to children of parents of all faiths and none all on an equal basis.
    Whilst it is perfectly appropriate to offer comparative religion as a subject in a state school, it is a wholly inappropriate place for the practice of any particular religion.

  • Carol Linton 18th Mar '17 - 1:56pm

    I see no mention of children being only offered a place at a faith school against their parents wishes, where the social environment and curriculum are not ‘standard’ and where transport is not provided along narrow lanes with no pavement of speed limits.

  • Shaun Whitfield 20th Mar '17 - 11:45am

    @Paul Hunt. You need to catch up on the facts. Information provided by the DfE following a FoI request by the Accord Coalition shows that by 2012-13 only £23.1m for the whole of England was paid by VA schools for capital works. Schools of a religious character (which includes both the’faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools in your rather spurious distinction) are now hardly paying anything towards capital works.

    You mention the 1944 settlement. Then the legal requirement was, in exchange for the privileges given to religious bodies running schools, for a 50% contribution to capital costs. Over the years this has been whittled down to 10%. Even this is an overestimate, as the DfE no longer requires VA schools to make any contribution towards most of the capital funding it makes. Yet has there been any corresponding watering-down of the privileges accorded to VA schools to reflect their dwindling financial contribution to capital costs? No. Taxpayers have paid for these schools many times over and their continuing religious discrimination, aided and abetted by exemptions to equalities and employment legislation, is completely unjustifiable.

    Supporters of schools of a religious character have a blind spot about the privileges they enjoy. In a public good such as education, if you accord certain users or employees privileges not enjoyed by others in the same service, the latter will suffer discrimination. Take two experienced secondary teachers, one a devout catholic, the other non-religious. The job opportunities in state-funded schools will be wider for the devout catholic. As well as being able to apply for teacher jobs allocated for practising catholics (or indeed for similar jobs at non-catholic ‘faith’ schools), this teacher can also apply for comparable jobs in the rest of the state sector. However, the non-religious teacher is excluded from applying for a tranche of jobs by virtue of a lack of religious belief. How can any liberal justify such dreadful discrimination?

  • Peter Watson 20th Mar '17 - 12:18pm

    After the last two Lib Dem conferences, Lib Dem policy:
    “Ensures that selection in admissions on the basis of religion or belief to state-funded schools is phased out over up to six years.”
    “Calls on the government to abandon the selection by ability and social separation of young people, into different schools.”

    In the local elections in May this is probably more relevant than Brexit, so will Lib Dem candidates be emphasising these policies for schools on the doorstep in the run-up to those local elections, or trying not to draw attention to them?

    (Apologies for posting this in two parallel threads)

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