Humanists have reported a number of Catholic schools to the Department for Education, alleging unlawful promotion of partisan political action.
The organisation Humanists UK says that these schools are encouraging families to campaign for what it sees as further religious discrimination in schools admissions.
In a recent letter to schools, the education service of the Catholic diocese of Westminster has encouraged schools to contribute to “a very public final campaign”, in order to encourage the government to overturn the 50 per cent admissions cap that limits religious selection in free schools.
The letter asks schools to “encourage your local schools communities, governors, staff and parents to make their voices heard”. This message was subsequently shared on a number of Catholic schools’ websites and in their newsletters.
Humanists UK added that schools in a number of other dioceses have sent out similar messages, suggesting that this may be part of a national campaign.
Last year, the government proposed lifting its requirement that new faith schools must offer half of their places to children of other religions or none. This would allow faith schools to select entirely on the basis of religion.
Under existing rules, any new faith schools must offer half of their places to pupils of other religions or none. The rule led the Catholic church to decide not to open any new schools, saying that turning away Catholic pupils was against canonical law.
But Humanists UK argues that any political campaigning by faith schools would be in violation of the 1996 Education Act, which requires that schools should forbid the promotion of partisan political views or – in the case of primary pupils – the pursuit of partisan political activities.
The Act also requires that schools should take steps to ensure that, when political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, there is “a balanced presentation of opposing views”.
In its complaint letter to the DfE and Ofsted, Humanists UK says of the Westminster diocese’s actions: “This use of state-funded schools to pursue the narrow, self-interested political objectives of a religious organisation is entirely inappropriate.”
'Immoral and unlawful'
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, said: “For too long, religious organisations have hijacked our state education system to further their own vested religious interests. Now, and not for the first time, they are seeking to hijack our schools to further their political interests, too. Such a use of school children and public money is immoral as well as – we believe – unlawful.
A spokesperson for the diocese of Westminster said: "The email which was sent to headteachers and shared with staff was intended to invite them to express their views as individuals about the 50 per cent cap on admissions of Catholic pupils to oversubscribed Catholic schools.
"The communication was not asking schools to become engaged politically, but to make individuals aware of the situation and to invite anyone connected to or interested in Catholic education to ask the government to lift the cap."