Peterborough City Council has approved plans for the first state-funded Roman Catholic primary school in England in over a decade.

The school will open its doors to 90 children in 2022, and will eventually accommodate 630 pupils. And, if oversubscribed, the school will select 80% of its intake based on Catholic faith. 

Naturally, this move has been challenged by groups that believe faith schools entrench social division by selecting on the basis of religious background. Nevertheless, the Department of Education has remained firm in its defence of the proposed school. A spokesperson noted that voluntary aided schools (which are most typically faith-based in character) are ‘among the best performing in the country’.

This is the most common argument made in favour of faith schools – that they generate better results than schools without a faith-based character. This may be the case, but research from the Education Policy Institute has found that faith-based selection policies discriminate along other lines as well. For example, while the average percentage of disadvantaged pupils at key stage 2 country-wide is 18%, in faith based schools the percentage is just 12.1%.  Additionally, the likelihood of a child at a faith-based secondary school requiring free school meals is just two-thirds of that for all children in their local area. 

Faith-based schools, it seems, are vehicles of social selection. Though purporting to merely decide intake along religious lines, ultimately these schools gain their stellar results by skewing admissions in favour of those who are less disadvantaged. In turn, the institutions which support these schools – most commonly branches of the church – can boost numbers and forge connections with families who are happy to maintain ties with them to see their children through a school without its fair share of disadvantage. 

It’s a win win situation – but not for the countless children who are left out. A report has found that disadvantaged children perform better at school when they are in a minority. But if institutions like faith schools are socially discriminating against them, then it follows that the majority of disadvantaged children will attend schools where they make up a disproportionately high percentage of the intake. Through social selection, faith schools obscure genuine educational inequalities and produce visually appealing results at the expense of the most vulnerable pupils in our education system. 

Yet many argue that the success of faith schools is simply a result of their religious ethos. A report from the UCL institute of education indicates that pupils raised in religious households are more likely to be academically successful than their peers, regardless of whether they attend faith schools. But the report acknowledges that there may be several corresponding factors associated with growing up in a faith-based household which may precipitate stronger academic performance – and that this performance is not necessarily down to pure faith ethos.

Indeed, being part of a religious household may increase childhood academic attainment, but this is not an argument for religion to continue being used as the foundation for our new schools. After all, we are an increasingly non-religious country, with more than half the population saying that they have no religious beliefs. And those who identify as non-religious are increasingly likely to be working class. Thus using faith as a means to make school admissions decisions fails to hold up a mirror to the society in which we live. Predictably, these failures are most pronounced when it comes to society’s least advantaged. 

It is strange that schools should select on the basis of faith when those they serve are society’s youngsters. Children may be born into religious households, but the religious choices of their parents should surely not automatically be assigned to them? Doing this is likely to prevent children from having the freedom to choose their own faith – and to really get to grips with what faith is. Faith, in a religious sense, is defined as the ‘strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.’ How can a child of four or five have such a conviction? The premise of faith schools is flawed, selecting not on faith at all but on family convention.

And there are other reasons to be concerned about faith schools. Many faith schools have been accused of ‘distorting’ sex education lessons, meaning children are ill-informed about sex, and have few ideas of potentially dangerous situations. Faith schools can also choose what they teach as part of RE lessons, and this can leave children ill-equipped to deal with the multitude of beliefs and philosophies that underpin modern Britain.

Of greatest concern is a loophole in the Equality Act, which allows faith schools to discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff. This loophole actually meant that in one Islamic school, male and female pupils were totally segregated and never taught by members of staff of the opposite sex. But it is the principle of this loophole which is even more worrying. What kind of example are we setting to the youngest and most impressionable in society if we teach them that any sort of discrimination – faith-based or otherwise – is okay? 

It is a bad example for sure, and the approval of the new Catholic school in Peterborough sadly suggests that zeal for faith schools among society’s decision-makers is unlikely to wane anytime soon – and children will pay the price for it. 

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