Lib Dems vote to end religious selection in school admissions

tl;dr:

  • Faith schools select on the basis of riches, not religion
  • They may discriminate against South Asians
  • Religious parents can send their kids to any school, non-religious parents can only send their kids to non-religious schools – this gives religious parents more choice and is illiberal
  • Most people oppose or don’t care about faith schools – it’s not clear how this will affect the Liberal Democrat vote

coexist_by_piotr_mlodozeniec

In case you didn’t believe me (you should – I was there), here’s the British Humanist Association (BHA) reporting on this. Liberal Democrat party policy is voted on by its members. Earlier today on the last day of our Spring Conference, we voted to:

“[ensure] that selection in admissions on the basis of religion or belief to state-funded schools is phased out over up to six years.

It was all a bit complicated but there were three options. Option A – see above; option B – allow religious selection but don’t hurt the poor or be racist; option C – option B but for 50% of admissions (aka option B-lite). (A gross oversimplification but it’ll do for now.)

Faith schools hurt the poor

Often this debate centres around whether children of different faiths and none should mix. Whilst important, my greater concern is that faith schools de facto select for richer children.

The Fair Admissions Campaign demonstrates this. The proportion of children at a school eligible for free school meals (FSM) is a proxy for affluence. More FSM-eligible kids means poorer pupils.

When compared to the local area, non-religious schools have 5% more FSM-eligible pupils than would be expected. Schools with 100% religious selection vary between 27.59-63.39% fewer FSM-eligible kids than expected given the make-up of their local area – pupils at faith schools have richer parents.

South Asians

On a side-note, the Accord Coalition looked at 4 religious schools and their proportions of South Asian pupils compared to the local areas. Most striking was Bury CofE: in an area with 1 in 5 South Asians, the school had none. It’s not definitive evidence but is concerning if people who are poor and look like me are discriminated against. More so, in a party which is too white and too middle-class.

Benevolent intention

Whilst there are exceptions, most faith schools are not doing this on purpose. They however have an issue – how do you tell if somebody’s religious?  Using the amount of donations is unethical (though it doesn’t stop some). So the next best thing is attendance at religious services.

If you are middle-class, it is easier for you to attend a religious service than if you are poor. A poor single mother may not have the option of turning to down a Sunday morning shift that a two-parent well-to-do family can. With any barrier to selection, richer and educated parents are better-equipped jumping through hoops.

With the best will in the world, even if it was the right thing to do, religious selection is impossible. A religious poor person without the time to attend church loses out to the rich person who knows how to fake it, and does so to get their child into the better-performing local faith school.

The bottom line: faith schools de facto select on how rich your parents are.

The false dichotomy of choice

This has been very difficult for many proponents of faith schools in the Liberal Democrats. For them, the ability to educate their child in a religion of their choosing was fundamental. Why should government impose a secular education on children against parents’ wishes?

Firstly, taking into account all of the above, it’s not clear poor religious parents have the same access to this choice as rich ones. Even if this weren’t true, the claim mischaracterises the debate.

If you are religious, you can send your child to religious or non-religious schools. If you are not religious, you can only send your child to non-religious schools. Children of non-religious parents have fewer choices than religious parents.

That one set of children has more choices because of their parents’ religion is illiberal.

The future for the Lib Dems and faith schools

Interestingly, an amendment which would have effectively abolished faith schools was voted against. Whilst I voted for it, it is worth noting that it would be incredibly difficult to implement, let alone sell to the public. A number of rural schools for instance are paid for and run by the Church of England where no alternative schools are available. The historical set up of British education means such a change would need more thought.

Further Liberal Democrats, particularly in Remain Con-Lib marginals at council level, will fear backlash amongst religious Tories who will bring this up – how do we square this circle?

Whilst this is certainly something that needs consideration, note that 58% of adults oppose faith schools v 30% who have “no objection” to their state-funding and only 8% saying they would choose a school because of a “faith tradition” or “transmission of belief about God”.

We have to be wary that when campaigning, we aren’t listening to vocal and well-to-do faith school supporting minority when the silent majority either oppose or don’t care about faith schools.