Scrapping 50% cap for faith applications in free schools could increase segregation – campaigners call for Inquiry

Janet Downs's picture

Faith free schools must reserve half of their applications for children who are not of the faith. 

That doesn’t mean half of pupils in faith free schools will be non-faith.  If a faith free school doesn’t receive enough non-faith applications to fill the 50% slot, then it can fill vacant places with faith pupils. 

But that isn’t enough for the Catholic Church.  It wants 100% of places in Catholic free schools to be filled by Catholics.  Non-Catholic children would only gain entrance if 100% of places weren’t filled by Catholic children. 

The education secretary Damian Hinds, educated at a selective Catholic school, wants to remove the 50% cap.   This follows concerns that Hinds isn’t impartial because he received funds from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in 2014/15.  The Church denies the donation was an attempt to buy influence. 

The Accord coalition  is urging those who think the 50% rule should be kept to contact Hinds urging him not to scrap it.   

The Independent says campaigners want a parliamentary committee to scrutinize the proposal to allow faith free schools to select all pupils on grounds of faith.  They argue this will increase social segregation. 

England is almost unique in allowing Catholic state schools to discriminate against non-Catholic children.   The Catholic International Education Office (OIEC), defines a Catholic school as:

‘a non-discriminatory school, open to all … in conclusion, the Catholic school is anything but a communitarian school. It is open to all … It must constantly promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue, if it is to continue its mission. This is in any case a motto of the OIEC, all over the world.‘

But ‘all over the world’ doesn’t seem to apply to England where Catholic schools* have admission criteria which discriminate against non-Catholic children.

If Christian schools really are Christian, then they should be expected to follow the words of Jesus Christ: 

‘Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.’

Taxpayer-funded state schools should not be allowed to pick and choose which taxpayers’ children to educate.  This applies to selective schools as well as faith ones.  State-funded faith schools could retain their faith ethos but should not be allowed to discriminate against non-faith children.  There would be an element of self-selection, of course, but such an open door policy would be inclusive.  In an increasingly fragmented world, it’s important that state policies don’t encourage segregation and sectarianism. 

The Department for Education says it will publish the results of the Schools That Work for Everyone consultation, which asked for views about selection and faith schools, in due course.  It is already long overdue.  It should be published immediately.   


*This doesn’t just apply to Catholic schools.  Other faith schools, including Church of England academies or Voluntary Aided schools, have similar discriminatory admission criteria.

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Jane Eades's picture
Thu, 22/02/2018 - 12:05

It has been a concern of mine that so many 'free' schools have been set up which have a religious base.  Surely experience should be telling us that religious divisions create problems and that we need to be working towards a more tolerant, understanding and integrated society.  Looking at Wikipedia gives the following faith based 'free' schools: 32 Christian based 'free' schools; 3 Hindu; 7 Jewish; 15 Mulim and 1 Sikh.  Are we next going to have schools defined as working class, middle class (of course, the upper class will, presumably, be privately educated)?  Divisions are expensive - that argument is for those who only see accounts!

John Bajina's picture
Thu, 22/02/2018 - 12:22

Faith Schools are profoundly dangerous to a balanced settled society. Headteachers in N Ireland have publicly and directly defining Faith Schools as a large contributory cause of previous, present and future unrest in the Province.
England is going down that same slippery slope.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 23/02/2018 - 16:57

The following is from 'Humanists UK'

Parents have an explicit right in the European Convention of Human Rights to bring up their children in the religion or belief of their choice without interference from the state. However, they do not have a right to state funding for confessional religious teaching or ‘faith’ schools that are in line with their own beliefs. We do not think that state schools should be allowed to choose pupils on the basis of religion, discriminating in access to a public service that should be open to all. We don’t think that state schools should be free to select teachers and other staff, or to select governors, according to their religion. We are concerned that the proliferation of state-funded religious schools is making for a more segregated future, particularly as religions whose believers tend to come from particular ethnic groups gain more state-funded schools. When studies show that religious selection for pupils also results, deliberately or otherwise, in socio-economic selection, we think the social case against religious schools is even stronger.

We want to see an end to the proliferation of state-funded ‘faith’ schools. We want a progressive withdrawal of their privileges and exemptions so that religious schools are eventually absorbed back into the wider schools sector, becoming inclusive schools for all the community.

See also my review of Stephen Pinker's new book here

Samson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2018 - 21:25

Janet you mis-represent how the 50% rule works when you say: "If a faith free school doesn’t receive enough non-faith applications to fill the 50% slot, then it can fill vacant places with faith pupils". The schools can fill their first 50% with faith applications, but the point is that the second 50% must be allocated without any reference to faith at all. There can be no priority for "non- faith" applicants - the places must be open to anyone, including faith applicants.

There have only been 2 Catholic schools which have had "open" places (one a free school, and the other a VA school with some open places), and both have misunderstood the concept. They were both pulled up by the adjudicator for allocating their open places to "non Catholics" rather than allocating them without reference to faith. See the Wikipedia page on the 50% cap for details, in particular the section about Catholic Free Schools.

Samson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2018 - 21:36

To illustrate this, imagine you have a school with 100 places which has allocated the first 50 using faith criteria (e.g. Catholics holding a certificate of Catholic practice) and allocates the second 50 using distance from the school gate. If the 50 closest applicants had a Catholic or Church of England baptism certificate but no certificate of Catholic practice they would quite rightly get the places ahead of the person who was 51st by distance but had no faith affiliation at all. The "non-faith" applicant wouldn't get priority just because they were not of the faith.

That is why the CES claim that the rules force them to "turn away Catholics on the grounds that they are Catholic" is so disingenuous. They may have to turn them away because they live further away than some non-Catholics, but they are not being turned away "because they are Catholic".

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 08:47

Samson - you're right about how the 50% non-faith applications would be decided according to non-faith criteria if there were sufficient applications for non-faith places.   But if there were not, then the school could fill these vacant slots with faith applications if these were oversubscribed.  This explains why Al-Medinah, the free school once described as dysfunctional, had almost 100% Muslim intake.  Simlarly, the Tauheedul Islam Boys' High school, a free school judged outstanding, nearly all of its intake has an Indian or Pakistani heritage.   It is the growth in faith free schools together with calls from faith groups to allow 100% of applications to be from the faith that has stoked fears that such schools increase segregation.

You're also right that the CES is being disingenuous in saying they have to reject Catholics on the grounds they are Catholic.  If a Catholic claiming a non-faith place fulfils the criteria for the non-faith places (eg distance from school) s/he would gain admittance.  Vice-versa, if a non-Catholic gained admission because s/he fulfilled the criteria for non-faith places and this meant one less place for a Catholic, the 'rejection' would be because of distance not because of faith.

Samson's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 09:59

"you're right about how the 50% non-faith applications would be decided according to non-faith criteria if there were sufficient applications for non-faith places. But if there were not, then the school could fill these vacant slots with faith applications if these were oversubscribed."

No, this statement uses inaccurate and divisive language. The school in these circumstances does not "fill these vacant slots with faith applications" - instead they fill them "without reference to faith"!

Of course the outcome may be the same, but it is important to make the distinction because otherwise you are bolstering the widely spread myth that there is a special category of "non-faith applicants". There isn't! Schools are not allowed to divide their applicants into "faith" and "non faith" and treat them separately - if you read those adjudications I mentioned you will see that is exactly the judgement that they make!

Once the 50% faith-based places have been allocated, all remaining applicants must form a single list that is prioritized "without reference to faith". It is symbolically and ethically important that faith and non-faith applicants are treated equally from that point onwards, and inclusive schools champions like yourself should celebrate that, not imply that it is somehow a flaw in the system - after all, two wrongs don't make a right!

Samson's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 10:45

To further illustrate the point, imagine if the Islamic school you mentioned scrapped its faith-based policy altogether. Students applying would then no longer need to submit any evidence of their faith affiliation. However it would probably still fill with people affiliated to the faith, because they would be attracted by the school's ethos. They would not be "faith-based admissions" though.

In reality, faith practice is a spectrum, and those open places at faith free schools might well be taken up by students who are affiliated to the faith but don't practice it quite so strictly as their faith authorities would like them to. That in itself is a positive result - it stops oversubscribed schools from dictating how often families go to church or how early they should be baptized, etc. It makes it ok to be (for example) a "lazy Catholic" or a "lapsed Catholic" or a "cultural Catholic" without having to pretend otherwise. If it attracts some non-Catholics and non-religious people too then that's even better, because it would add some much needed diversity, but even if it doesn't it is better than the "100% faith-based admissions" situation we have in VA schools, which coerce families into conforming to whatever narrow faith criteria are set.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 12:26

Re semantics - my description of 'non-faith' applications implied 'without reference to faith'.  OK - it could be crticised for being sloppy generalisation but 'divisive' is rather strong.    If a free faith school doesn't fill its spaces allocated 'without reference to faith', it's highly unlikely it will allows these to remain empty.  It fill them with applications for faith places if these were oversubscribed.  Theoretically, these will have been allocated 'without reference to faith' but practically the school will have a majority of faith pupils.

You're right that I'm an 'inclusive schools champions'.  No state-funded school should be able to set up barriers to deter certain children.  I'm not saying faith schools should be banned - they've a long history and much school land is owned by religious groups.  But they could be designated 'faith ethos' and be expected to accept applications from all children without reference to faith.  There would be a certain amount of self selection, of course, but it would send a positive message that all children are welcome and equal.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 12:19

Samson - the 50% cap on faith applications applies to free schools and is mandatory.  Free schools can't scrap it (at least, not at the moment).  That's distinct from VA schools and faith academies which can and do prioitise according to faith.  This is divisive, yes, but in the context of this article I was only discussing faith free schools.   And faith free schools can still ask for proof of adherence to the faith via their supplementary admission forms  for applications under the Priority A (faith) criteria (see here for example). 




Samson's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 12:51

"But they could be designated 'faith ethos' and be expected to accept applications from all children without reference to faith"

Yes, that is the goal of groups like Accord (which I support). Sorry you think I'm being picky over your language, but it is important, and I've seen you use the same language in comments elsewhere (e.g. Schools Week). The logical implication of your semantics is that a 'faith ethos' school with the panacea of 100% open admissions is still not ideal because it can "fill vacant places with faith pupils", whereas in reality it would be filling them without reference to faith.

The 50% cap does what it says on the tin - it takes us half way towards 100% open admissions. Nothing more, nothing less. The second 50% is open to all without reference to faith, as it should be. The waters have been muddied enough by the CES and their talk of "turning away Catholics because they are Catholic" without those who presumably support the 50% cap staying in place mudding them too. If people reading your comments think the cap isn't doing the job it was intended to do then they are less likely to support it.

Samson's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 13:04

" If people reading your comments think the cap isn't doing the job it was intended to do then they are less likely to support it."

And of course that was exactly the goal of the language used in the "Schools that Work for Everyone" consultation. That document said that one of the reasons the 50% rule should be scrapped is because it isn't working for minority-faith free schools, which are still mostly filled with students affiliated to the minority faith. However that is a false argument. If the DfE don't want schools to be filled with students from minority faith then they shouldn't approve schools with a minority-faith ethos. It is the ethos that is the issue, not the admissions policy.

John Bajina's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 10:49

Samson, I think you are right 'Once the 50% faith-based places have been allocated, all remaining applicants must form a single list that is prioritised "without reference to faith".
However, the figures appear to suggest otherwise, schools are ignoring this rule. Authorities should enforce this rule. In the present Governments confused and toxic thinking, I fear that that schools are not enforcing this rule.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 17/04/2018 - 13:08

It is important to note that there are no such things as 'Christian' or Muslim children. It is not possible to determine the 'faith' of a child with a DNA test. Of course adults have freedom of religion and the right to bring up their children within their own cultural traditions, but the ultimate guardian of the rights and welfare of children must be the State. This is most clearly demonstrated in conflicts between state law and the wishes of parents in relation to 'end of life care' and 'care needed to preserve life' (eg blood transfusions and Jehovah's Witnesses.

In relation to education, the State surely has the responsibility to ensure that all children have a broad and balanced education in which neither the schools nor the parents/governors are allowed to 'delete' aspects of the curriculum that they they don't like for faith or other reasons. This includes sex and health education, civics and science. There are many documented examples of faith schools contravening the rights of children in such issues and Academisation has made this more complicated.

Most democratic states safeguard their children by insisting on a secular education in all state schools. This is how Wikipedia puts it.

"Secular states become secular either upon creation of the state (e.g. the United States of America), or upon secularization of the state (e.g. France or Nepal). Movements for laïcité in France and for the separation of church and state in the United States defined modern concepts of secularism. Historically, the process of secularizing states typically involves granting religious freedom, disestablishing state religions, stopping public funds being used for a religion, freeing the legal system from religious control, freeing up the education system, tolerating citizens who change religion or abstain from religion, and allowing political leadership to come to power regardless of their religious beliefs."

The UK system of the state funding, not just of religious schools, but also sectarian schools within religions, is way outside the democratic international norm and is therefore at the root of the problem. This has come about through the history of our education system, but the issues raised in this article and the comments, will not be solved until the nettle is grasped.

This LSN article shows that the principles of a secular education system have been weakened rather than strengthened in the UK in the last 150 years.

John Bajina's picture
Wed, 18/04/2018 - 18:58

Dear Roger, wholehearted agree. A concerning number of present day Government functions fall outside the democratic international norm, not only with our state education but other aspects of state decision making. The very recent scandal of the Windrush Generation is a good example.
I feel the case for a strong and irreversible robust secular education system must be prepared now and presented to the most likely Political Party.
I am impressed by CASE's Prospect for 2018; for me this document is a good starting point for resetting UK's education system along the right path.

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