Faith schools need to be religiously diverse, rabbis say

A rabbinical row has broken out, with a group of rabbis writing an open letter to education secretary, Justine Greening, opposing their chief's call for new faith schools to be allowed to select all pupils according to religion.

Adi Bloom

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The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has put pressure on the government to drop the requirement that all new free schools leave 50 per cent of places open to local children, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Rabbi Mirvis said that Jewish schools should provide “a completely immersive Jewish environment”, and argued that this would be harder to accomplish if 50 per cent of pupils were not Jewish.

But the new letter, organised by Jonathan Romain, rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire, and signed by 68 rabbis from across the country, refutes this.

It states: “Jewish values can happily coexist with social cohesion”. An open admissions policy, it adds, would allow children “both a sense of religious roots and openness to others”.

The chief rabbi's position could now have new high level support. Nick Timothy, chief of staff for new prime minister, Theresa May, has previously argued for the abolition of the 50 per cent limit.

'Tackle segregation'

At the moment, new free schools are only allowed to select half their places by religion. The Department for Education has said that it hopes this will help tackle segregation, and allow pupils to experience a diverse range of religious beliefs.

Rabbi Mirvis is not the first to have asked for the lifting of the 50 per cent limit on selection by religion. Similar calls have come from the Catholic Education Service, and from the New Schools Network, a charity which supports groups setting up new schools, which Mr Timothy used to head.

The Network argued that relaxing the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions would increase the number of free schools opening across the country. This, in turn, would address the national shortage of school places.

'What parents want'

As director of the NSN, Mr Timothy said: “Free schools are all about raising standards and responding to what parents want. Although well-intentioned, the current 50 per cent cap on admissions is actually blocking existing high-calibre school providers creating the much-needed places that parents want.”

The British Humanist Association, which campaigns against school selection based on religion, has welcomed the rabbis’ letter.

Its faith-schools campaigner, Jay Harman, said: “The amount of pressure that the religious lobby has been putting on government to allow their schools to be more discriminatory and more divisive is both inappropriate and entirely out-of-step with efforts to improve integration in the education system.

“What this letter shows is that the position of these groups is also entirely out-of-step with the majority of religious people, who evidently believe that social cohesion and mutual understanding are best-served by schools which are inclusive, open and diverse.”

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