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Religious Schools: Admission Policies

Volume 797: debated on Monday 29 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of religious schools’ admission policies on those schools.

My Lords, many schools with faith-based admissions have diverse intakes. Faith schools do not have significantly different populations of ethnic groups compared to non-faith schools. Admission authorities must ensure that their arrangements are clear, fair and objective and will not disadvantage unfairly a child from a particular social or racial group. Anyone who believes that a school’s admission arrangements are unfair or unlawful may make an objection to the schools adjudicator.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Fifty-two per cent of British adults identify themselves as having no religion, and 53% of rural primary schools are faith schools. Almost three in 10 families in England live in areas where most or all of the closest primary schools are faith schools. What have the Government to say about children effectively being forced into faith schools against their parents’ wishes?

To reassure the noble Baroness, the voluntary aided scheme is focused on providing the diverse range of places that parents want and is aimed at meeting demand for those places from within particular groups. Where parents are not offered a place at the schools they expressed a preference for, the local authority must offer them a place at another suitable school with places available. Just to reassure the House, in 2018 93% of parents got one of their first three choices of secondary school and 97% of parents for primary school.

My Lords, I have used faith schools and my children do so. Is it not true that faith schools are extremely popular and are very often overcrowded because people want their children to go to them? Faith schools are the product of the people who first started education in this country and we ought to be very proud of the Catholic and Anglican schools which serve us.

My noble friend is quite right: the largest voluntary-aided schools are Catholic schools. There are some 850,000 pupils in those schools, and 33% of those pupils are from other faiths or none. They get higher results, on average, than the state system and they started free education in this country before the Government.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while it is important to look at the interaction between people of different faiths in choosing the intake of faith schools, it is equally important to ensure that a broad curriculum of religion is taught so that people are taught about other religions in a respectful way and about how to respect those different faiths? The teaching should focus on underlying ethical imperatives common to all faiths.

The noble Lord is quite right. With the help of all Members of this House, we got the relationships and sex education regulations through last week. They underpin the whole concept of preparing children for our very diverse society. To reassure noble Lords on the recent voluntary aided application system, we were very clear in the criteria that anyone applying for it had to address the needs of all pupils in that community, of all faiths and none. They have to prepare children for life in modern Britain and create inclusive environments. Nothing is more important, beyond a good education, than an integrated system.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that it is important that children and young people, whatever their faith and whether they have a faith or not, should have an opportunity to learn and socialise together rather than being separated because of their religion. My question is about admission arrangements. Maintained schools, academies and some faith schools have different admission criteria, and because of all these different arrangements it is often difficult for local authorities to find places for pupils, let alone for parents to navigate their way around. How can the Minister make it easier for parents to understand the admission arrangements within their area?

My Lords, academies are required to put their admissions policy on their websites so that they are quite clear to parents who apply. As I mentioned in response to an earlier question, the vast majority of parents get a school in the top three of the ones they choose to apply to. I mentioned in my opening remarks that the schools adjudicator is there as the final resort for parents who are concerned about admission arrangements. It is very reassuring to know how few objections are raised. In 2015-16, there were 300; in 2016-17, 100; and in the last academic year, 129.

My Lords, my father was the headmaster of a Church of England junior and infant school for some years. There is a danger of a caricature emerging. Over the last two centuries many village schools were, in practice, schools for everybody but they were Church of England maintained schools—I am sure that the right reverend Prelates will know how that works. On the one hand we have to make sure that there is no question of religion being stuffed down people’s throats, which I think is the implication of some of the questions, and, on the other hand, to recognise that we now have a very diverse society and ensure that the Church of England maintained schools, which are subject to local authority criteria, are not out of place in modern society.

My Lords, although purporting to promote tolerance, the humanist campaign is in fact aimed at limiting access for people of faith to state-funded education. Does the Minister agree that, rather than give credence to those who want to limit parental choice, we should protect our British values, promote tolerance and respect the rights of parents?

My noble friend is completely correct. One of the most powerful things in our education system is diversity, and faith schools exist simply because there is huge demand for them. As I mentioned earlier, they have a higher level of oversubscription than most other school systems. They are required to teach a broad and balanced curriculum, and they are inspected by Ofsted on that basis.