Sometime ago I blogged on this and set out some of the reasons why I feel so strongly about this issue.
Recently, I finally got a letter together and sent it to my local MP, Mary Macleod.
The letter is very much based on the template letter that can be found on the Fair Admissions campaign website, with details relevant to my local situation and how as an atheist family we have fewer schools to choose from than a Catholic or a Christian family, and how we are pretty much denied access to the two schools that are closest to us.
The Fair Admissions campaign also focusses on how discrimination on religious grounds is linked with discrimination along ethnic and socio-economic lines and so I looked at data on local faith schools and the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals.
There are many ways that the admissions systems are unfair- for example housing in catchment areas for good schools is more expensive, pricing some families put of a good education and therefore limiting social mobility. I agree with you that admission should be unaffected by religion. I too know people who have attended church purely in order to get their kids into a school, not an example I want to set my kids!
It’s true that there are many ways in which the process is unfair, ways that I probably am not aware of yet, not having been through the system. This campaign is one that does have a very narrow focus, but I do believe that if religious discrimination is tackled there is a high likelihood that it will have a knock on effect. The correlation between faith schools and socio-economic selection is discussed in the letter, but I just thought I’d point you in the right direction in case you want to look at your local schools. It’s all on the Ofsted website. Go here to find you nearest schools, and then when you click on a local school go to “School Data Dashboard” in the box on the right hand side. Click on “School Context” and you should get something that looks like this. (where you can see that my local Catholic school had 10.5% of pupils eligible for school meals in 2012 – lower than the national average (26.2%) and lower that of the surrounding Community schools (50.8% and 39.7%)).
You might want to plug your postcode into the Guardian website here instead, but to be honest I couldn’t get the fancy software to work on my laptop. There is a round-up of the same data from 2012 here which states that ”England’s faith state schools are failing to mirror their local communities by shunning the poorest pupils in their area”
If you’re still with me, and still interested, here is the text of the letter I sent:
I am writing as your constituent to ask your position on the issue of religious selection in school admissions. I am the mother of little boy who has just turned two and I do not think that state funded schools should be able to turn pupils away because of their or their parents’ religion.
To be clear, I am not enquiring about your position on the state funding of faith schools – simply about religious selection in admissions. I believe that such selection constitutes discrimination along religious, ethnic and socio-economic lines.
I think all children, no matter what their background should be taught alongside each other, in an inclusive environment. Surely starting school is a huge opportunity to teach children about equality and respect for others.
I couldn’t agree more with Dr Jonathan Romain, Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, that selecting in this way “..is the wrong message and at precisely the wrong time.” He also stated ‘I want my children to sit next to a Sikh in class, play football in the break with a Methodist, do homework with a Hindu and walk to the bus stop with a Muslim before returning to their Jewish home.’ How can it be right that state funded schools can have admissions policies that can select up to 100% of pupils on the basis of faith and deny Jonathan’s desire?
Religious selection of this nature is bad for cohesion between different religious groups. Dr James Doyle, Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, said before a Committee of the UK Parliament in 1830, ‘I do not see how any man, wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can ever be permanently established, or the prosperity of the country ever well secured, if children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinions. I do not know any measure which would prepare the way for a better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age, and bringing them up in the same schools, leading them to commune with one another, and to form those little intimacies and friendships which often subsist through life.’
Turning to ethnic segregation, Professor Ted Cantle, author of the Cantle Report, found that faith schools with religious admission requirements were ‘automatically a source of division’ in Blackburn. Community cohesion is vital for our increasingly pluralistic society, but instead we continue to divide children in their formative years along religious – and hence ethnic – lines.
In addition, it has been shown that religious selection often causes socio-economic selection – with some parents feigning religious belief or practice to get their children into their preferred school. 2008 research by Rebecca Allen has found that ‘if we take a community school and a voluntary-aided religious school, both located in a neighbourhood with exactly the same levels of deprivation, the community school is likely to have about 50% more free school meal children than the voluntary-aided school.’ More recent research has showed that this statistic still holds true today.
Local to me, the faith schools do have a lower percentage of children receiving free school meals. Looking at figures for 2012, at Our Lady and St John’s RC Primary School, which selects all children on the basis of faith, 10.5% of children are eligible for free school meals – compare this to the figures for the two local community schools, Green Dragon Primary School and Lionel Primary School which are 50.8% and 39.7% respectively. St Paul’s CofE Primary School doesn’t do too badly with 35.6% of pupils eligible for free school meals – it could be argued that this is a reflection of the fact that it does not select 100% of places based on faith.
I do not think that ending religious selection in school admissions would reduce parental choice. In fact it would increase choice, in giving all parents the ability to send their children to their nearest school, or the best school in their area, if that is what they wish. If a school gets good results, why should some children be denied access to it?
The current system means that often people who are Christian/Catholic have the choice of more schools than someone of a different faith or no faith. For example, my two nearest schools are Our Lady and St John’s Catholic Primary School and St. Paul’s Church of England Primary School. Both schools select on religious grounds. As an atheist family there is no chance of our son being accepted into the local Catholic school. In 2011 the only children accepted were those who met the first three of the criteria on their admissions policy:
“1. Catholic looked-after children.
2. Baptised Catholic Children from practising Catholic families with Priest’s support and a Baptismal Certificate, and who have a sibling in the school at the time of admission.
3. Baptised Catholic Children from practising Catholic families who are resident in the parish of St John’s, Brentford, with Priest’s support and a Baptismal Certificate.”
“Any other applicants.” i.e. The child of a family with no faith, are way down at criteria 11.
St. Paul’s Church of England school’s admissions policy “have designated 6 places to applicants who do not qualify for a foundation place,” where the following criteria must be met to gain a foundation place:
“• Children of families who worship regularly in a Church of England church.*
• Children who reside in the Parish of Brentford (see attached) and who worship regularly in a church or chapel of another Christian denomination as defined by the following:-*
a) Churches together in England (including associated members).
b) Churches together in Britain and Ireland (including associated members).
c) The Evangelical Alliance (including associated members).”
Going a bit further afield there is also Green Dragon primary school and Lionel primary school which do not discriminate on the grounds of religion.
Looking at the 4 primary schools near to me and taking into account the admissions policies of the two faith schools, I am sure you can see that as an atheist parent I have fewer schools to choose from than a parent who is Christian or Catholic. Do you feel that local parents who are Christian or Catholic should have a greater choice of schools than parents of a different faith or of no faith?
I want faith schools, indeed all schools in Hounslow to mirror the diversity that is present within the borough. I believe the eight faith schools in the borough that select on religious grounds prevent this from happening.
A survey conducted by YouGov in November 2012 showed that the public at large opposes religious selection by state funded schools by more than four to one (73% opposed, 18% supportive). I therefore hope that you will represent the views of the majority of your constituents by similarly opposing such selection.
I hope that this inspires others who care about this issue to write to their MP’s too. (Remember you can email your MP through the Fair Admissions website here)
Feel free to comment and let me know your thoughts on this campaign.