Government plan to allow full religious discrimination in new state schools

28 April, 2024

The Sunday Telegraph has reported that the Government will announce their intention this week to remove the 50% admissions cap on new faith schools in England. This would mean that they would no longer have to offer a proportion of their places to children without considering their families’ religion but would instead be able to apply religious discrimination in 100% of their admissions. This same proposal was dropped by the Government in 2018 after extensive opposition and evidence of the benefits of the cap.

Responding to rumours of the move two weeks ago, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, together with other religious leaders, parliamentarians, education experts, and prominent public figures in a letter organised by Humanists UK called on Education Secretary Gillian Keegan not to take this step, but to keep restrictions on faith-based admissions criteria in new state-funded faith schools – the so-called ‘50% cap’ – in place.

The 50% cap, introduced in 2007 and retained by the Cameron, May, and Johnson governments, has been a crucial safeguard in making sure that faith schools do not exclude all children who live locally and whose families do not share the same beliefs. By restricting the proportion of pupils that faith schools can select based on their religious beliefs, the cap promotes diversity, cohesion, and fairness within schools.

Even with the cap in place, recent studies have shown that faith schools continue to be less inclusive than schools without a religious character, in terms of disadvantaged children, children in care, and those with additional learning needs.

Removing this cap would be a backwards step that risks increasing division and inequality. Eliminating the cap would further entrench religious selection in our education system, undermining the principle of inclusivity and reinforcing religious privilege.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘The Government’s proposal to lift the 50% cap on faith-based admissions will increase segregation in our schools at a time when integration and cohesion has never been more important. It will further disadvantage non-religious families and families of the “wrong” religion.

‘Rather than expanding religious selection, a government that cared about cohesion would be seeking to create a single admissions system where all state schools are open to children from any background or belief.’

Humanists UK has also described the Catholic Church’s canon law arguments, which seem to have persuaded the UK Government, as disingenuous. The Catholic Church of England and Wales, which has claimed that if it opened schools under the current arrangement this would be in breach of canon law. But, as Humanists UK reported in a 2016 briefing, this appeal to canon law is contradicted by the facts:

  1. the vast majority of Catholic private schools in England (78 out of 101 according to a [then] recent survey) do not select all their places with reference to religion, and many openly celebrate the fact that they do not religiously select at all;
  2. many Catholic state schools in Scotland do not religiously select their pupils;
  3. around the world allowing state-funded schools (Catholic or otherwise) to religiously discriminate in admissions is extremely rare. A recent OECD survey identified only the UK, Ireland, Israel and Estonia as permitting discrimination of this nature;
  4. devastatingly, there are already Catholic state schools in England that do not select all their places on religion. For example, St Richard Reynolds Catholic Primary School in Richmond, St Paul’s Academy in Greenwich, and The De La Salle Academy in Liverpool all leave a third of their places open to non-Catholic children.
  5. the Catholic International Education Office – the umbrella body for over 100 national catholic education organisations around the world, including the CES – stated in an official paper circulated at the Council of Europe in November 2016 that a ‘Catholic school is an inclusive school, founded in intercultural and interreligious dialogue. A non-discriminatory school, open to all, especially the poorest… [It] is anything but a communitarian school. It is open to all. In many European, American, Arab, African or Asian countries, the Catholic school welcomes mainly, or even exclusively, Muslim pupils, Buddhists, animists, or pupils of other religions, even those without religion. It must constantly promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue’.

Clearly, the idea that the Catholic Church cannot open free schools under the cap is not at all supported by the current situation. As Professor Linda Woodhead, [then] Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University [now Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London], puts it: ‘There is in fact no such canon. It’s the subtlety and openness of canon law on this matter which allows the Catholic Church across the world to operate in a wide variety of educational and legal situations with maximum flexibility.’

Furthermore, a recent poll found that 63% of Catholics, and 68% of Christians more generally, are opposed to any and all religious selection in state schools, suggesting that the Catholic Education Service’s position is not supported by the wider Catholic population it claims to represent.

It seems possible that the Catholic Education Service’s pretence of a religious objection based on unspecified canon law might be a political tactic to try to force through a policy change favourable to the Church but unpopular with the public and incredibly detrimental to integration and fairness in the education system.

These are points that led to the cap being retained, when its abolition was previously considered. They should be considered afresh today.


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at or phone 07534 248 596.

For more detail on the admissions cap and what it means see our explainer What is a ‘faith school cap’?

Read the Sunday Telegraph report.

Read more about our work on faith schools.

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