Don’t use faith to decide who gets a school place, says new report

18 July 2018

KEITH BLUNDY

Canon Stuart Bain watches over primary-school pupils at a leavers’ service in Durham Cathedral earlier this year

Canon Stuart Bain watches over primary-school pupils at a leavers’ service in Durham Cathedral earlier this year

THE Church of England should phase out selection on the basis of faith in its schools, a new report recommends, as part of a radical overhaul of religious education.

In A New Settlement Revised: Religion and belief in schools, Dr Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, and Charles Clarke, a former Education Secretary, reiterate their call for widespread reform (News, 19 June 2015). After extensive consultation over the past three years, the new report refines their suggestions.

They argue that senior Anglicans would support their admissions call, five years after the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of a “steady move away from faith-based entry tests” before rowing back and holding the line on support for faith-based selection (News, 14 November 2013).

The report recommends that a national curriculum be set by a new Advisory Council on Religion, Beliefs and Values, chiefly made up of professional RE educators. This syllabus should, it says, be statutorily required in all schools, including independent schools — as applies to relationships and sex education. Currently, there are about 150 locally agreed syllabuses, drawn up by a variety of faith and interest groups.

DIOCESE OF COVENTRYA pupil at St Nicholas’s C of E school, Nuneaton, with one of the crosses pupils created during a pilgrimage of Coventry’s Cross of Nails, which has been passed between primary schools for the past six months

“If the country is to have confidence that faith schools can and should legitimately be supported by public funds . . . they need to know that religion is taught in accordance with the inclusive values which the country as a whole shares,” it says.

Another recommendation is that parents’ “anachronistic” right to withdraw pupils from the RE syllabus be abolished (News, 20 April).

The Church House response to the Commission on Religious Education, chaired by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall and due to report in September (Comment, 22 September 2017), described the right as “an unhelpful hangover from the concerns of another age” but warned that ending it could result in schools’ being “dragged through the courts. . . the current situation may have to remain”.

The new report seeks to encourage C of E leaders to favour moving away from faith-based selection. It says that “a significant number of senior Anglicans” who were consulted said that they would be “happy if there were no selection at all on the basis of faith”.

It would be “highly beneficial if the thinking of many of the Church of England’s leaders were now put into effect, for example by adopting a strategy of phasing out of all selection in their schools on the basis of faith, perhaps over a number of years,” the report says, concluding that the state “needs to move strongly in the direction of reducing the number of schools in this country which include faith as a criterion for admission”.

While arguing that “children of families of faith should where possible be able to attend schools of that faith”, and that “their current legal right to be given priority in the admissions process should not be removed”, the report argues that “a distinctive faith ethos and values . . . does not depend on selection criteria”.

On Wednesday, the C of E’s chief education officer, Nigel Genders, identified an “an apparent contradiction” in the new report, “which promotes the right of parents to choose an education that is consistent with their faith, but suggests that schools move away from of any faith criteria in admissions processes to enable this. This seems a difficult square to circle and so the reason for calling for churches to remove all faith criteria is not clear.”

Mr Genders welcomed a “significant ground-shift” away from the original call for abolition of the requirement for collective worship. The report now recommends “a regular assembly or act of collective worship in keeping with the values and ethos of the school and reflecting the diversity and character of the school community”. The requirement is currently daily collective worship “wholly or mainly or a broadly Christian character”.

Mr Genders also praised the “recognition of the importance of religious education in schools”.

Central to the report are concerns about a “worrying decline in standards”, voiced alongside a survey of the religious-social landscape which positions religious education as a vital tool of integration.

In a separate paper — a response to the Government’s consultation on its integrated communities green paper — the authors observe that the division between those who belong to organised forms of religion and those who do not threatens to become a “growing source of tension”.

There was a need, Professor Woodhead said this week, to “create a society and culture in which religion is not ‘weird’”. Young people’s interest in debating questions of belief and values was “enormous”, she said, yet RE was being “allowed to wither away”. Last year, religious studies (RS) was the fourth most popular GCSE subject.

Successive studies have highlighted that schools are breaching the legal requirement to hold daily worship, and to provide an RE lesson at least once a week (News, 22 September, 2017).

DIOCESE OF BLACKBURNThe Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, awards 265 students from Ripley St Thomas their KS3 young leaders awards at the school’s founder’s day

The report recommends changing the name of the subject to “Religion, Beliefs and Values” and upholds its original view that the legal requirement for RE after the age of 16 should be abolished; and that for those aged 14-16 it should be modified into “a wider study of religious, spiritual, moral, ethical, social, and cultural values”.

The report’s recommendations have not impressed either Roman Catholic educationalists or secular campaigners.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, expressed disappointment that the report “throws its support not only behind faith schools themselves, but behind the divisive practice of their discriminating against prospective pupils and teachers as well”.

The Catholic Education Service described the report as a “a direct attack on the Catholic Church”; and the RC Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Marcus Stock, said that Roman Catholic schools were “the most successful providers of religious education in the country”. The report’s authors had “opted for a reductionist approach which is exclusively sociological and has no consensus amongst RE professionals.”

Mr Genders has previously been critical of “lumping together schools run for the exclusive or main benefit of their faith alongside Church of England schools”, and has argued that C of E schools are “not faith schools for the faithful . . . [but] church schools for the community” — a claim that has been challenged by campaigners who note that 35 out of 40 dioceses do not advise schools to refrain from using religiously selective admissions criteria (News, 24 November, 2017).

While emphasising that 60 per cent of C of E schools have no religious-affiliation admissions criteria, he has warned that “providing places purely on distance from the school would mean that only the wealthiest, who can afford to move house near by, can access the best schools.”

The report makes a number of recommendations to “promote inclusivity” in schools, including twinning arrangements, and says that schools should be stripped of the right to admit on the basis of faith by OFSTED if they do not meet requirements to educate “in a way that promotes inclusivity and community cohesion”.

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, CEO of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, said on Tuesday that the report showed “the chronic need for action from the Government”. The legal framework was “no longer fit for purpose”, he said, and pupils needed to explore how worldviews were “often misunderstood, misrepresented, stereotyped, and simplified in the media and wider society”.

Paul Smalley, chair of the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious, said that “much of what is proposed is in line with what school teachers, SACRE members, and the public are hoping for. . .

“Other recommendations, such as a ‘national RE syllabus’ written by an Advisory Council appointed by the Secretary of State, will divide the RE community.”

He added: “It will take confident political leadership to take any legislative change regarding RE through Parliament, and I am not optimistic that this is likely to occur any time soon.”

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