Posted: Wed, 29 Jul 2020
The government has said faith schools should temporarily alter their admissions criteria because places of worship have been closed. This should prompt lasting change in the school admissions system, says Megan Manson.
In the UK, whatever happens to religious institutions is likely to have a knock-on effect on the state somewhere. That's one of the many disadvantages of not separating religion and state. And we're now beginning to see the impact of closing places of worship due to the coronavirus on some of our state schools – specifically, the third of them which are faith schools.
On Friday the government published guidance for faith schools in England, advising them to make changes to their admissions arrangements for the September 2021 intake. Many faith schools operate exclusionary and discriminatory admissions criteria that prioritise the children of regular churchgoers over other children. But because places of worship have been closed for months, faith schools cannot use church attendance as a reliable method of assessing how 'worthy' children are to attend their school. They'll have to find new ways of deciding which children to admit if they're oversubscribed.
It would plainly be absurd and unfair to use attendance at a place of worship as admissions criteria when places of worship have been inaccessible for months on end. But isn't assessing children's suitability for school admission based on churchgoing absurd and unfair in the first place? For many people, places of worship are hardly accessible at the best of times.
More than half of all Brits have no religion, and over a quarter are open atheists. For many, attending church is an alienating, tedious and wasteful use of a Sunday morning. Nevertheless, many parents are willing to feign religiosity in order to get their child into their local faith school for reasons other than its religious ethos (for example, its distance from their house).
But this option is not merely undesirable for many – it is practically impossible. Single parents, parents who regularly work at weekends, low income families, and families with disabled or seriously ill members are just a few of examples of parents who face practical barriers to committing to regular church services. School admissions criteria based on church attendance therefore favours comfortably well-off, able-bodied families with two parents. It's no wonder that those who attend church in order to get their child into their desired school are more likely to be middle class.
The overwhelming majority of faith schools are Christian, and many parents of other religions are doubtlessly unwilling to attend regular church services, especially if they already attend other places of worship. Moreover, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are less likely to be white, so there is a risk of indirect racial bias if we assess children's suitability for a school based on their family's worshipping habits.
And then there are LGBT parents. Considering the attitude most religions have towards same-sex relationships, chances are a substantial proportion of them will be reluctant to attend a place of worship every week.
There's a meme circulating social media which says after the pandemic, we shouldn't simply 'go back to normal' because 'normal was the problem'. The upheaval caused by coronavirus has exposed many inequities and disparities in society. It's also caused people to look at society from a new perspective, to question the status quo, and to seek ways of improving how we do things. Religious-based discrimination in our schools is one thing we should leave behind as we enter a post-Covid society.
The No More Faith Schools campaign will be watching closely to see how faith schools change their admissions criteria. Some may decide to temporarily do away with assessing the religiosity of families in favour of sensible criteria that the other two thirds of our schools use - for example, how far away the family lives from the school. That may prompt more people than ever to question why our schools ever needed to know how often families go to church at all.
And perhaps they'll also question why politicians have been so keen to hand control of our schools to those who wish to treat them as religious communities. Wouldn't admissions be a lot simpler and fairer if we just spent taxpayers' money on inclusive community schools?