Government must not allow segregated faith schools in through the back door

The cap on religious selection at faith schools may not have been lifted but the war isn’t over, writes Andrew Copson; the new voluntary-aided faith schools will still be harmful

The government’s U-turn on removing the 50-per-cent cap on religious selection at new faith schools, is a victory for fairness and inclusion in our state education system – but it is not the end of the war.

It has 18 months since the government published its ‘Schools that work for everyone’ green paper, setting out proposals to drop the cap on faith-based admissions at free schools. At last, ministers have finally accepted that fully-segregated faith schools are problematic, dividing children along religious and ethnic lines. After all, the evidence on this is absolutely clear, and so too is the expertise. The list of those who spoke out against the proposed removal of the cap is as long as it is distinguished, including Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman, the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the general secretaries of the National Education Union, and even the previous education secretary Justine Greening, under whom the proposals were first announced.

So, those who want to ditch the cap have certainly lost the argument that it has “failed in its objective to promote integration” and that it has “prevented new religious schools from opening”.

However, despite this the government still feels the need to appease a handful of religious organisations which opposed it and which wish to continue to promote discrimination and segregation in our schools. In lieu of dropping the cap, the government has brought forward proposals to allow fully-segregated faith schools to open once again via new voluntary-aided (VA) faith schools, to which the cap does not apply.

This sidesteps what’s known as “the free school presumption”, which since 2012 has required local authorities to seek proposals for free schools when new local places are needed, rather than for local authority maintained schools (of which VA schools are one type). Given how central this presumption is to the government’s vision for an education system divorced from local authority control, this is both a spectacular departure from its core policy and a telling indication of just how accommodating ministers are willing to be to religious schools’ demands, however destructive they be.

That on its own should be enough to worry anyone who believes in the principle of an open, fair, and secular democracy. But for those who believe in an inclusive and integrated education system too, it is nothing short of a scandal.

Let’s be clear about what this move means. A decision to keep the 50-per-cent cap in place is a recognition of the negative impact that fully-selective faith schools have on integration and equal access. The simultaneous decision to allow different types of fully-selective faith schools to be established anyway is a governmental shrug of the shoulders, an expression of apathy about the harmful consequences of segregation that led it to keep the cap in the first place.

The government needs to show that it is better than that. If its recent statements of commitment to integration are to be seen as anything more than mere window-dressing, it should not now allow fully-segregated faith schools to creep in through the back door. To do so would be a betrayal of its principles and a betrayal of the children whose rights and interests it should be trying to uphold.

This article originally appeared in Schools Week

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