New Labour left an appalling legacy of the mass expansion of state-funded, discriminatory faith schools. They facilitated the handing over of a large part of state education to the churches and increasingly to minority religious groups – giving them huge freedoms over curriculum, admissions, and staffing. Unfortunately, the Coalition Government is committed to helping many more new religious schools set up, with full support from the public purse. Labour Humanists is actively campaigning within the Labour Party to get rid of the pro-institution, pro-faith, pro-selection, pro-segregation policy towards faith schools. We should restore pride in being the Party that truly supports chances and access to a high quality state education for every child, whether their parents believe in a god or not.
Schools selecting pupils on the basis of the professed faith of the parents are segregating children and young people along religious, socio-economic, cultural, and even ethnic lines. As such, discriminatory faith schools are arguably one of the biggest threats to social cohesion in this country. They also play their part in increasing social inequality, often taking the highest achieving students from their local areas, becoming what are in effect grammar schools by a different name. Their admissions policies also tend to favour those from more affluent backgrounds over children from poorer backgrounds.
To its shame, it was New Labour which kowtowed to the demands of churches and other religious authorities, and fought to support, endorse, and enshrine in law the ‘right’ for faith schools to discriminate in their admissions.
Labour principles mean that whichever family you are born into, whatever your background, you have the right to high quality and inclusive education. A young person’s religious or non-religious beliefs, or those of their parents and wider family, should have no bearing on whether they can attend their local state school. Moreover, dividing up more and more young people along religious and class lines through selection by the ever-expanding faith schools sector is self-evidently bad for society, and clearly against One Nation Labour values.
So under Ed Miliband – who has made his education experience at a normal state school the cornerstone of his public and political persona as leader – here are three policy options for One Nation Labour which could make the situation a lot better.
- No new faith school is allowed to select in its admissions.
- Faith schools’ existing discriminatory admissions policies are abolished and they cannot apply in future
- Scrap compulsory collective worship in all state-funded schools. (Ok, so this one isn’t actually about admissions.) But if we’re going to make sure that faith schools have inclusive intakes and stop discriminating against children on religious grounds, then it doesn’t make sense for schools still to be allowed to make their pupils pray or worship in line with the religion of the school. The fact that inclusive schools without a religious character are mandated by law to force their children to worship is so obviously wrong that situation should be sorted out immediately.
Naomi Philips is the Chair of Labour Humanists