Churches are open to all. Why aren't faith schools?

The proliferation of exclusive faith schools does not increase parental choice - it undermines it, writes one parent

Irena Barker

At a time when we need to heal divisions in society, is it really good idea to allow more exclusive faith schools, asks parent Irena Barker

For an agnostic brought up in a pretty anti-religion household, I’m surprisingly into church services.

I love the sound of the organ, the incense, the men in robes, the hope that God might just be looking down on us.

Above all, I enjoy the friendly welcome when I visit with my children a few times a year.

No one questions us about our religion, or lack of it, and usually they seem glad of the numbers.

And they don’t even seem to mind when the youngest goes AWOL down the aisle.

With their (community) school, my children have also been able to visit mosques and temples, which open their doors in the name of education and community cohesion.

I am glad that my children won’t grow up ignorant of other people’s beliefs and traditions, even if – as my oldest insists – they “don’t believe in them Gods”.

But it seems strange that, despite this apparent openness, when it comes to oversubscribed schools run by and for specific faiths, things can become much less welcoming.

Faith school admissions

For a parent, school admissions are like choosing houmous in Waitrose – unfathomably complex.

Faith schools that use religion as a factor in admissions only add to the confusion and are, by their very nature, exclusive, not inclusive places.

I am well aware that there are many faith-based schools that are educating children of all faiths and none and are doing a good job.

But, as the Fair Admissions Campaign estimates, 72 per cent of all places at faith secondaries – equivalent to 13 per cent of places at all secondaries – are subject to religious admissions criteria.

While in the eyes of God all the families in an area may be equal, in the eyes of some faith schools they are not.

On the other side of the coin, some worry that the proliferation of faith schools – in the name of parent choice – might be leading to a lack of choice for some.

At the end of April, Baroness Joan Bakewell, a high-profile humanist, told members of the House of Lords that the over-supply of religious schools in some areas “effectively [forces] children into faith schools against their parents’ wishes”.

She highlighted the fact that although 52 per cent of British adults say they have no religion, almost three in 10 families in England live in areas where most or all of the closest primary schools are faith schools.

So many parents have no choice but to apply to schools with a religious ethos, even when they would prefer their child to attend a straightforward community school.

As the government ploughs on with plans for 14 new voluntary-aided schools that would be able to select all their pupils on the basis of their faith, the picture is only set to get worse.

In an era when it is more important than ever for people of different beliefs to mix and learn from each other, the coming of these “exclusive” faith schools seems like a massive backward step.

Channel 4’s The Great British School Swap, which ended this week, illustrated well the dangers of children and adults not having the chance to mix with those from other faiths and cultures.

After spending time in each other's schools, Muslim children from a school in Birmingham had formed life-long bonds with white non-Muslim children from a school in Tamworth, just a few miles down the road.

But prior to the swap, the level of ignorance and prejudice among parents and pupils was alarming.

So that brings me to this: how can it be a positive thing for a local girls’ Islamic free school to siphon off Muslim girls from the local comprehensives, as is happening in my area?

What does it achieve other than dilute diversity elsewhere and comfort Muslim parents that their daughters will be shielded from the cut and thrust of the comp?

Why should my daughter, who will almost certainly end up in the comprehensive, be denied friendship with these girls who have been shunted down the road for special treatment?

And how do you tell your Year 6 son that he can’t go to the Hindu school that his best friend is going to because he’s not Hindu? What an odd message to be sending out to our children.

Of course, I understand that parents want their child to be able to fit in, have friends and have their religious and cultural needs catered for by their school.

But ordinary comprehensives, especially those with already very diverse intakes, are incredibly good at that already.

In a society greatly in need of a bit of mutual understanding and tolerance, it is hard to believe that we are continuing to slice up the population of our education system along religious lines.

How does this fit in with any sort of message about diversity and inclusivity that schools are asked to promote?

Irena Barker is an education writer and parent of three primary-age children. She tweets as @irenabarker

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