20,000 sent to faith schools despite requesting secular education

More than 20,000 children started at faith schools in England this month, despite choosing secular schools as their first preference, the National Secular Society has said.

The campaign group is now calling on the government to curtail the power religious groups have over state schools and ensure all pupils can go to a secular school if they choose.

However, the Department for Education has described the findings as “totally misleading”.

Data obtained by the NSS under the freedom of information act revealed that 12,311 pupils were assigned to faith secondary schools and 8,333 pupils were assigned to faith primary schools, despite requesting non-faith schools as their first choice.

Just over a fifth of these pupils (4,300) were sent to faith schools they had not included as any of their choices – 2,773 secondary pupils and 1,589 primary. Parents are able to select between three and six options on their school applications.

A total of 21 per cent of those who put a non-faith secondary school as their first choice and did not get it were assigned to a faith school. At primary level, it was 14 per cent.

At the start of January 2017, there were 6,814 state-funded faith schools in England, making up 37 per cent of all state primary schools (6,177) and 19 per cent (637) of all secondaries.

Alastair Lichten, head of education at the National Secular Society, said the figures show children are “having religious pushed upon them against their parents wishes”.

He said the government should stop building new faith schools and “roll back existing religious control over state schools”, or at least ensure every pupil “has the right to a suitable secular school”.

A spokesperson for the DfE said the figures were “totally misleading” and that in the “vast majority” of cases a place at a faith school is only offered if parents have listed that school as one of their preferences.

“We are committed to offering parents and children a diverse education system, which includes the option of faith schools.”

Last year, the government attempted to make it easier for faith groups, specifically the Catholic church, to open new faith schools by reviving its support for voluntary-aided schools. The push was a compromise after ministers refused to lift the cap on faith-based admissions to free schools.

However, the move has so far had limited effect.

Schools Week revealed in March that just 14 bids were received for the new schools. Just one, Hampton Water Roman Catholic Voluntary Aided School in Peterborough, was approved in principle, but the Department for Education said it was working to identify sites for two more.

A spokesperson for the Catholic Education Service said a third of pupils in Catholic schools are not Catholic “and as such Catholic schools remain extremely popular with parents of all faiths and none.”

The Church of England claims not all of its schools are faith schools, because some do not have a formal religious designation. The NSS argues that any school with a religious ethos can be described as a faith school, and so has included all of the Church of England’s schools in its data.

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  1. Mark Watson

    I have my own doubts and concerns about faith schools, but this analysis by the National Secular Society is patently ridiculous.

    Firstly, any child that didn’t get their first choice school is having the alternative “pushed upon them”. It would be interesting to know how many children whose first choice was a faith school were instead ‘forced’ to attend a non-faith school – does the NSS agree that this constitutes “having secularism pushed upon them against their parents wishes” ?

    Of course what we all know is that the vast majority of parents choose what they think is the best school as the first choice for their child, and don’t give a monkey’s if its CofE, RC or secular. Yes there are those committed Christians, and committed secularists, that think that fact alone is more important than the quality of education but they’re few and far between.

    So I would suggest that most of the 20,000 referred to in this report didn’t make their decision on first choice school because it was secular, they made it because they thought it was the best school – it just happened to be secular. If the second best school in the area was CofE (other religions are available) then their second choice would have been that faith school.

    If as a parent you don’t want your child to go to a faith school then, presuming there is a viable alternative, I believe you have that right. But that’s got nothing to do with what the NSS are talking about here …

    • Shaun Whitfield

      But this problem is only going to get worse. More and more of the population are stating that they have no religion, whereas the number of “faith” schools is increasing. Often, particularly in rural areas, the only reasonably accessible primary school in transport terms is a C of E school. It seems it’s OK for those who support “faith” schools to have a school of their choice nearby, but not for parents who are seeking a secular education.

      Strictly speaking, there are no state-funded secular schools as all are required by law to hold a daily act of collective worship, mainly Christian in nature. During the last Labour government a head teacher requested that the collective worship requirement be dropped in the case of his school, but wasn’t allowed to because it would be unlawful.

      Overall, what the NSS (I am a member) is seeking is the removal of religious privileges in public life. It should be remembered that if you privilege certain groups in society, others will experience unfair discrimination as a result.

      • Mark Watson

        If that’s your argument, which of course you’re entitled to, then I suggest you/the NSS get some proper data to back it up.

        I would imagine you’re right that less people consider themselves religious, but in my experience that means they don’t really care one way or the other. In the same way they wouldn’t describe themselves as religious I doubt they’d describe themselves as secularists either.

        What I have no real grasp on, and it seems neither does the NSS, is what proportion of the population would proactively say that they don’t want their child to go to a faith school whatever the circumstances.

        This seems like one of those discussions where a small section of society (committed religious people and committed secularists) will vigorously battle it out whilst the majority watch on not really worried one way or the other.

        • Shaun Whitfield

          Indeed, many “faith” schools are religion “lite” and do not achieve, or wish to select, 100% of their students using a religious test. Lots of non-religious people have no problem with that. However, I understand that both Humanists UK and the NSS are receiving increasing complaints about not only the children of non-religious parents being allocated “faith” schools but also complaints about evangelism and proselytising in such schools.

          Also, the requirement in non-denominational schools for collective worship is being exploited in this way.

          • Mark Watson

            I don’t doubt for a second that that’s true. (And indeed it’s one of my personal concerns.) But how many complaints are we talking about, and is this a widespread issue among faith schools in general or a feature of a specific sub-set?

            I live in rural Gloucestershire. We have a mix of local schools, many of which are CofE. Although there is certainly a ‘Christian ethos’ promoted at the schools, this is more the “treat others with respect” , “be kind”, “do the right thing” type of approach. Probably what you refer to as ‘religion lite’, and something I would support. I can’t speak for everyone in the area but I’ve never heard of aggressive proselytising, and I have friends (with no religious leanings whatsoever) whose children go to these CofE schools and they’re very happy with them.

            However … is there a different kind of faith school? This may be the product of a rabid media, but I get the impression there are schools which are more fundamentalist (for want of a better word). These schools can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim etc. but the religion is a defining feature of the school and a pupil who’s not of that religion would not feel comfortable. If there are indeed these kind of schools then your sentiments and concerns, and the points made in the above article, are absolutely valid and I would totally support action being taken.

            The problem, I would respectfully suggest, is that to the outsider it seems like organisations such as the NSS lump the ‘gentle’ rural CofE primaries in the same basket as the ‘fundamental’ religious hot-houses.

  2. Shaun Whitfield

    I agree with much of what you say in your last post. However, I don’t think it is fair to say that the NSS lump ‘gentle’ CoE primary schools with the hard line fundamentalist schools. In fact, they make each issue subject to separate scrutiny, categorised as follows:

    1. Illegal, unregistered private schools with a religion-heavy curriculum and no proper coverage of, say, science subjects.

    2. State-funded “faith schools” that nevertheless display some of the religious fundamentalism of the unregistered private schools. For example, an orthodox Jewish state school for girls enforces a strict “modesty code” and therefore its behaviour policy includes prohibiting out of school activities such as ice skating, with expulsion the ultimate sanction for disobeying this edict. I’ve never heard of a normal school preventing its students from taking exercise at their local leisure centre.

    3. Non-denominational schools that are used by evangelists to pursue a narrow religious agenda though exploitation of the collective worship requirement. Ironically, this may have been helped by the increasing number of non-religious teachers, so the head “outsources” the collective worship requirement to these religious groups, who may be less than open about what their real intentions are. The NSS published a report on this a few years ago.

    • Mark Watson

      Thanks for engaging, it’s genuinely interesting to discuss these issues with someone with a different viewpoint. Especially when someone clearly has greater experience in the area. I have to confess (if it’s not already obvious) that I have nothing other than personal experience and what I read in the media to go on here.

      It’s good to hear the NSS differentiates between schools with different levels of ‘religousness’. Your problem though it that this doesn’t come across when stories such as this one are published.

      The tone of the headline of this article, and the quotes from the NSS, make it sound like 20,000 pupils from secular families are being forced to attend the sort of fundamentalist schools you describe in point 2 of your post above.

      Having engaged with you here I don’t think this is actually what you think. However by ‘over-claiming’ on the numbers and not addressing the points I’ve raised above I would suggest you turn a lot of people off from your argument.

      It may not have such an immediate and obvious impact as referring to 20,000 pupils, but if the NSS was to put out a report showing that (for example) 200 pupils whose parents had not selected a religious school as any of their choices had ended up being placed in schools that had been noted as having aspects of religious fundamentalism then I think you’d have more chance of making changes. I’d certainly buy into it a lot more.

      My opinion only …