Why Does the UK Allow Schools to Discriminate Due To Religion?

By Eithne Dodd, Journalist 18 Dec 2017
Young People

Around the world, there are very few countries which allow schools to pick pupils on the basis of their faith. The UK is one of them. 

In the Organisation for Economic and Co-operation and Development (OECD), the global collective to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world, only four of the 35 member states allow schools to make religion part of the selection process. Joining the UK is Ireland, Estonia, and Israel.

Many schools in the UK are both state-run and religious – you probably passed one on your way to work today. Across England and Wales, a third of all state-funded schools are religious.

There’s a huge diversity across what types of schools these are, including the Churches of England and Wales, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. But should schools even be allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion?

Back Up. How Does the Current System Work?

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Currently, in the UK there is an admissions cap on faith schools. Basically, this means a school can sometimes take 50 percent of its new admissions on the basis of their religion – the other 50 percent must be admitted with no reference to their faith.

The Schools Admissions Code also has a number of other procedures which must be followed. For example, if a state school is undersubscribed, then it must admit any applicant who applies for a place (except if it’s a grammar school). If a state school is oversubscribed, then its admission authority is entitled to rank applicants in accordance with pre-published oversubscription criteria.

For faith schools, if they are oversubscribed, then they are allowed to allocate the first 50% of places to students with the faith of the school but the second 50% has to be allocated to students without any preference given to their faith.

Should Schools Be Allowed To Do That?

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This is an area of huge disagreement. The Roman Catholic Church claims that admissions cap is discriminatory against Catholics and are calling on the state to remove it altogether. They have also said that they won’t invest in free schools in England or Wales until the cap is dropped i.e. until they are allowed to admit 100% of their places on the grounds of faith if oversubscribed. There have also been calls from other faith groups, including the Jewish community, to end the admissions cap.

Others, however, believe that the rules are necessary to increase social cohesion and prevent discrimination. If a school can’t select its pupils based on their race, ethnicity or social class why is it allowed to do so on the grounds of faith?

Many groups do not believe that faith-based admissions would be good for society. The National Secular Society, Fair Admissions UK, and Humanists UK have all called on the UK government veto 100% faith-based admissions to schools.

But Don’t Parents Have a Right to Send Their Children to Faith Schools?

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This is actually a little tricky. According to Protocol 2, Article 2 of the Human Rights Convention:

In the exercise of any functions in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

So yes, parents do have the right to choose what school they send their children to, but they do not have the right to disallow any other child from any other background from going to that same school.

Perhaps more importantly, the state is not under any obligation to build faith-based schools (but they do have to offer secular education to those that want it) and there are many organisations such as Humanists UK and Amnesty UK who believe that they shouldn’t. In 2010, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights also backed this position, saying the argument that it was necessary to discriminate on the basis of faith as part of our Human Rights was not “persuasive”.

Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which the UK is a signatory, also says that the goals of education are: “The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.” It has been argued that segregating children due to the faith of their parents hinders this goal.

So, Is The Admissions Cap Fair?

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As previously discussed, this is an argument with passionate advocates on both sides. Politically, the Conservative Party manifesto did promise to replace the cap saying it was “unfair and ineffective”, however, this has not happened.

It’s unlikely it will be an issue that’s resolved quickly, and there are arguments on both sides. As it often is, it’s all about balancing our rights and finding the best solution.

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About The Author

Eithne Dodd Journalist

Eithne is a masters student at City University where she is studying International Journalism. Previously, she achieved a Bachelors Degree in Economics and English at University College Dublin where she worked at the student paper, The University Observer.

Eithne is a masters student at City University where she is studying International Journalism. Previously, she achieved a Bachelors Degree in Economics and English at University College Dublin where she worked at the student paper, The University Observer.