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Schools: Admissions

Volume 831: debated on Monday 17 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s recommendation that the United Kingdom should prevent the use of religion as a selection criterion for school admissions in England.

My Lords, the UK is a proud signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the Government support faith schools’ ability to set faith-based oversubscription criteria. This allows parents to have their children educated in line with their religious beliefs. Faith schools can give priority to applicants on the basis of faith only when they are oversubscribed. Where places are available, they must admit all children who apply.

My Lords, I am not sure that is quite correct. Not a lot of people know this, but children from non-religious families may experience double discrimination when it comes to selection at schools. Approximately 40% of all faith schools and 60% of Catholic schools give priority to children of families of any religion against those of no religion. As the equalities spokesperson and a humanist, I agree with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has urged the UK to end the use of religion as a selection criterion for school admissions in England. Does the Minister agree that all children, irrespective of faith or belief background, should have equal right to access schools funded by taxpayers’ money?

As I tried to set out in my initial Answer, we believe that all children have equal access. Only when a school is oversubscribed can the admissions authority introduce additional restrictions. Indeed, many faith schools do not restrict on the basis of faith.

How does the Minister respond to these remarks from a parent in Oldham who told Humanists UK that

“the 2021 Census found that those of no religion, and those of other faiths than Christianity, now form a majority of the population in our town. So it is a great injustice that one of the best schools in Oldham actively prevents local children from benefiting from its excellent teaching”?

If there is a specific example where the noble Baroness believes that the admissions code is not being followed by a school, I will be delighted for her to refer it to me.

My Lords, as there is no Anglican bishop in the House to put forward the view of the Anglican Church, I remind the House that I went to a Church of England primary school back in the 1940s, when we had been evacuated to Southport. Neither of my parents was asked whether they were members of the Church of England—neither was. I know of no secondary Anglican school that has ever debarred a child on grounds of religion. They are open to all.

It is not quite clear to me what my noble friend’s question was, but he is absolutely right that, on oversubscription, certainly at primary, there is no difference between faith and non-faith schools.

My Lords, the Minister will probably be aware that the UK is one of only four countries in the OECD that allows state-funded schools to discriminate on grounds of religion in their admission practices. The others are Israel, Ireland and Estonia. Ireland recently ended discrimination in admission practices for Catholic junior schools. Does the Minister accept that it is high time for this country also to end its discrimination on grounds of religion for state-funded schools?

It is really hard to compare the role of faith-based schools between countries with an overwhelmingly dominant faith and those, such as the one we are all very proud to live in, with many faiths, all of which are respected.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Baker that it is a great pity that, of the 26 of them entitled to sit in your Lordships’ House, there is no bishop here to defend the wonderful contribution that the established Church has made to education through the centuries. Should we not pay proper regard to that and, in doing so, accept that Christian parents should have some degree of priority if there are vacancies in a Church of England school?

I share my noble friend’s warm welcome for the remarkable work of all our schools, including our faith schools, all around the country.

My Lords, I was present when the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, on a visit to the Guru Nanak school in Hayes, applauded Sikh respect for other faiths, shown in assemblies and teaching. This and high academic performance lead to oversubscription for entry. Does the Minister agree that greater support should be given to faith schools that teach respect and inclusivity over those grounded in the divisive belief that their faith alone has a monopoly on the truth?

I do not accept that there are faith schools that have the kind of perspective that the noble Lord set out. We work hard with all our schools, and schools work together in local areas, to make sure that those values of respect—particularly for those of any other faith or none—are upheld. That is part of our citizenship curriculum and our fundamental British values.

My Lords, it is estimated that 1.2 million school places are subject to religious selection. There is evidence of low numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals, which is a measure of deprivation, in English faith schools. Will the Minister share her reflections and concerns about the selection process that may have led to this and whether the Department for Education will take a deeper look at this?

I looked at those numbers just before this Question, because I anticipated that the noble Baroness might raise them. I am happy to pick this up with her afterwards, but the data that I looked at suggest very little difference in the profile of deprivation between faith and non-faith schools.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former head teacher of a Church of England school. As the Minister knows, a third of all our schools in England are faith schools. She will also know that in 2010 we introduced the 50% rule whereby 50% of new academies had to have open places. Has her department reviewed the success of that scheme in terms of community cohesion, understanding of different cultures and faiths, and whether we should now extend it to all faith schools?

I am not aware that we have looked in detail at any of those proposals in the way that the noble Lord describes, but I am aware that all schools—potentially faith schools in particular—take their role in community cohesion very seriously.

Does my noble friend accept that the rights of parents to have their children educated according to their own religious beliefs is protected by Article 2 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights? Does she accept that Catholic schools, at least, are not state schools?

I am not quite sure that I follow. To the best of my knowledge, all Catholic schools outside the independent sector are funded by the state.

My Lords, as a former Archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps I might speak on behalf of the absent Bishops’ Benches. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Baker: the very heart of Anglicanism and the Church of England has been a tolerance of and welcome to other faiths. Does the Minister agree that that has always been the focus of education in England, and that we all want it to continue?