Faith schools a 'religious affront' say coalition of religious leaders


Faith schools are "a religious affront" and discriminate against children in ways that are incompatible with religious teachings about equality, openness and fairness, according to a coalition of religious leaders.

Such schools make religious faith seem "tarnished by discrimination" and lead to it being perceived as divisive, according to senior representatives from the Anglican, Catholic and other churches and faiths who today launched the first ever manifesto for faith schools.

The manifesto argues for a ban on faith-based admissions, faith-based teacher employment and the for the inclusion of religious education in the national curriculam.

As well as Anglicans and Catholics, those involved include members of the Methodist, United Reform, Unitarian and Quaker churches along with the Hindu, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

The manifesto also calls for reforms in the role of Ofsted and the place of collective worship.

Those behind the manifesto are not atheists and do not endorse a secular agenda. They come from a position of "deep faith", the document says.

In particular they want schools to be banned from employing teachers on faith basis, arguing that this is "morally objectionable" and and also "educationally counter-productive, harming the schools' educational standards and limiting pupils' social horizons."

The manifesto is to be sent to the prime minister David Cameron, along with Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband, as well as the Secretary of State for Schools, Nicky Morgan, and the shadow secretary, Tristram Hunt.

It was launched today to coincide with both the new school year and count-down to the General Election, but the need for change has long been apparent, according to the organiser, Dr Jonathan Romain, Rabbi of Maidenhead synagogue and a founder of the Accord coalition, which campaigns for an end to religious discrimination in school admissions and staffing.

In the manifesto, titled Time For An Act Of Faith, the religious leaders say: "As the new school year begins, and the General Election in 2015 approaches, we write as religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faith groups who are united in our concern over the way faith schools currently operate – both because of their impact on the children that attend them, and their effect on society at large.

"We value faith but do not wish it to be abused, be it for jumping ahead of others to gain entrance to a popular school, or blinkering childrens' educational experiences. Faith can be a means of enriching children's lives, but it can also be used to segregate and sow seeds of suspicion. We are calling for a rebalancing of how faith affects the school years of children."

They say they are especially conscious of the practices that caused such outrage in the so-called Trojan horse scandal in secular state schools in Birmingham, such as excluding lessons about sex education, avoiding the notion of evolution, and reinforcing a cultural identity to the exclusion of others.

They say these notions would not have been challenged had those schools been classed as faith schools.

"We are campaigning for inclusive education and against religious discrimination. Our goal is that all stated-funded schools, including faith schools are inclusive, tolerant and transparent."

Their six-point plan includes calling for an end to selection by faith in admissions and teacher employment, also argues that the decision to remove the duty of Ofsted to inspect how schools promoted community cohesion was a mistake and allows "abuses to go unchecked".

They also want religious education added to the national curriculum "to help children in multi-belief Britain understand each other and grow up in harmony."

And they say there should be no compulsory worship. "Worship has an important role elsewhere, but not in schools. Assemblies should instead be given the role of bringing pupils together in celebration of shared values, and assisting them to explore ethical questions."

The manifesto was launched today, Monday 1 September, at Bloomsbury Church in Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

Dr Romain said: "The Trojan Horse allegations have made the public aware of what's been simmering below the surface.

"The problem can be summed up in one word: discrimination, particularly in the way pupils are chosen for admission. Because in no other part of public life or state-funded institutions can you be selected or turned away because of your religion...not in hospitals, libraries, police force, civil service. Yet that's exactly what happens with state-funded faith schools.

"It's not good for society to ghettoise its future citizens so that they grow up segregated. And it's not good for the children who grow up in an 'us and them' culture, and in the very place where they should be learning about equality and fairness and tolerance and respect."

Schools are allowed to select by faith by having a specific exemption from the Equality Act.

Dr Romain added: "Our message is 'Thou shalt not discriminate against children' – particularly when trying to promote faith – and we urge the political parties to pledge in their manifestos to change the law to prevent it in the state educational system."

Rev Nigel Genders, the Church of England's new education chief, who took up office today, criticised the manifesto. He said: "The six points of the Accord coalition offer no answers for the pressing challenges in education today.

"As a society we face a major crisis over school places, which is squeezing low-income families out of the best schools. That is why the Church of England is working with local partners to find ways of expanding our provision and meeting the enormous demand for places, and ensure that young people from all backgrounds have access to a high quality education.

"There have been fantastic achievements in London and urban centres over the past ten years, and now the challenge is to make sure that schools in deprived rural areas are properly resourced. That is why the Church of England is building new networks for groups of rural schools to support each other.

"In an increasingly competitive world, our pupils need the very highest quality teacher and leaders. That is why the Church of England is building partnerships between universities and schools to ensure that the training and development for our teachers is the best in the world.

"Perhaps most importantly, there is a crisis of social justice in our society. That is why the Church of England is providing young people with an education which will not only prepare them to succeed in society, but empower them to transform it. We believe education is a vital step in building a fairer society."