Around a third of all state-funded schools in England and Wales are schools ‘with a religious character’ – the legal term for ‘faith schools’, as they are known in England and Wales, or denominational schools, as they are known in Scotland and Northern Ireland. This number has grown in recent years as successive governments have increased the influence of religious groups in the state-funded education system.
We aim for a secular state guaranteeing human rights, with no privilege or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, and so we campaign against faith schools, and for an inclusive, secular schools system, where children and young people of all different backgrounds and beliefs can learn with and from each other. We challenge faith schools’ admissions, employment and curriculum policies, as well as the privileged processes by which new faith schools continue to open.
We maintain a table describing the types of faith school and explaining their privileges and exemptions, as well as comprehensive data on how many of each of these types of school there are. You can help us by being alert to proposals for new faith schools in your area, challenging them when they arise, and working to make existing faith schools more inclusive in their admissions and other policies.
We also work on issues related to private and so-called ‘illegal’ faith schools.
You can read more about the school system and the rights of non-religious parents in England in our comprehensive guide.
Parents have an explicit right in the European Convention of Human Rights to bring up their children in the religion or belief of their choice without illegitimate interference from the state. However, they do not have a right to state funding for confessional religious teaching or faith schools that are in line with their own beliefs.
We do not think that state schools should be allowed to choose pupils on the basis of religion, discriminating in access to a public service that should be open to all. We don’t think that state schools should be free to select teachers and other staff, or to select governors, according to their religion. We are concerned that the proliferation of state-funded religious schools is making for a more segregated future. When studies show that religious selection for pupils also results, deliberately or otherwise, in socio-economic selection, we think the social case against religious schools is even stronger.
We want to see an end to the proliferation of state-funded faith schools. We want a progressive withdrawal of their privileges and exemptions so that religious schools are eventually absorbed back into the wider schools sector, becoming inclusive schools for the whole community.
Admissions: Many faith schools are their own admissions authorities, which means they can give preference to children from families that share their religion. Very often they even choose to give preference to families from any religion over those with none. Not only does this discriminate against pupils of the ‘wrong’ or no religion and infringe their rights by assuming their beliefs are identical to their parents’, it also leads to segregation along religious and socio-economic lines. Faith school populations are often far from representative of their local communities – for example, they admit far fewer children eligible for free school meals.
Employment: Faith schools are also allowed to discriminate to varying extents in their recruitment and employment policies. Applicants can be rejected and staff barred from promotion if they are not of the ‘right’ religion, or of no religion. In some schools staff can even be dismissed if their behaviour outside school is deemed ‘incompatible’ with the school’s religion. One result is that non-religious teachers find that their career prospects are significantly reduced.
Opening and closing schools: Faith schools are also uniquely privileged in law in school organisation – in some cases being able to open outside of competition with other proposals, ‘by the back door’, as well as having a privileged position in discussions around school closures and amalgamations.
Religious education: We are also concerned with the curricula of religious schools. The majority are permitted to teach their own religious education (RE) syllabus, unlike community schools, which must follow a locally agreed syllabus, and Academies with no religious character, which must teach a syllabus that is equivalent in its balance. The teaching of RE in religious schools is not specifically inspected by Ofsted, instead being inspected by someone chosen by the governors (which invariably means the diocese or other religious group that runs the school). It is usually ‘confessional’ in nature, with the aim of instructing children in the doctrine and practices of a particular religion, rather than about different religions and humanism as an academic subject. RE in such schools does not have to cover other religions and almost certainly fails to give a fair or detailed account of non-religious views. Ethical issues such as abortion or assisted dying are often approached from an explicitly religious perspective, with all the potential for misinformation that this entails. While there are many problems with locally agreed RE syllabuses, they do at least cover a range of religions and most now include the study of humanism.
Relationships and sex education: Relationships and sex education (RSE) in all secondary schools and relationships education in all primary schools became compulsory in England and Wales in 2020, a change for which we helped to lead the campaign. However, we are concerned that carve-outs in the law permit schools to teach the subject in line with the religious backgrounds of the pupils. For this reason, certain content – if it is covered at all – may be taught in ways that are homophobic, sex discriminatory, or that otherwise violate principles of human rights. The subject may also be inadequate in other ways – for example, by teaching abstinence-only education instead of teaching about contraception and abortion, or failing to deliver sufficiently inclusive relationships education that recognises and is accepting of same-sex families.
Science: Concerns about the teaching of creationism, when they arise, also typically do so within faith schools. We do not think creationism or intelligent design should be taught as scientific theories, because they are not.
What we’ve been doing
- We have continually challenged discrimination by religious schools in admissions, employment, and school organisation. Currently we are leading the campaign against new 100% religiously selective voluntary aided faith schools in England.
- This follows on from having successfully defeated a UK Government proposal to remove a 50% cap on religious selection in free schools in 2018.
To do this we:
- Published analysis of official figures demonstrating that the 50% cap had significantly boosted integration in the majority of religious free schools, contrary to claims made by the Government.
- Demonstrated that Claims made by the Catholic Church that ‘canon law’ prevents it from opening schools under the 50% cap were disingenuous and misleading.
- Forced the Government to amend misleading statistics on ethnic integration presented in their green paper proposals on the cap via a complaint to the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).
- Organised an open letter, signed by over 70 religious leaders, parliamentarians, education experts, and public figures, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, calling on the Education Secretary to keep the cap in place.
- In June 2013 we helped launch the Fair Admissions Campaign, a single issue campaign focused on faith-based admissions. The Campaign published a map that revealed for the first time the extent that schools religiously and socio-economically select, and how much this correlates, and also detailed research on how religiously selective schools are invariably breaking the School Admissions Code. We complained about many of these to the Schools Adjudicator, and these were generally upheld. This involved some high-profile schools, such as the London Oratory School, and meant that things like preferential treatment for taking part in ‘flower arranging’ and ‘cleaning’ were eradicated from school admissions policies.
- In 2017, we published No Room at the Inn demonstrating that, contrary to the claim that Church of England schools are moving away from faith-based entry tests, some 69% of Church of England secondaries have policies that religiously discriminate in their admission arrangements to some extent.
- And, in 2018, we published Non-religious Need Not Apply outlining how faith schools are more likely to discriminate against pupils from non-religious backgrounds than against those who have any kind of religion in their admissions.
- We have introduced numerous amendments to education bills to reform the law around religious schools. We were also instrumental in the Government’s decision to introduce changes in the funding rules for academies and free schools, meaning that they are all prohibited from teaching creationism and other pseudoscientific theories on an equal footing with evolution and other scientifically valid theories, but have to teach evolution as scientifically valid.
- During the passage of the last Education Act, we worked with peers to introduce amendments on admissions, school organisation, and employment. And all through the 21st century, we have responded to all relevant UK and Welsh Government consultations on these matters.We have also made a number of legal challenges to the continuing presence and role of faith schools. In November 2012 we took a (disappointingly unsuccessful) judicial review of the decision to open two highly discriminatory Catholic schools in Richmond-upon-Thames. In July 2012, we triggered a European Commission investigation into employment laws for UK faith schools, although this was, unfortunately, closed shortly before the Brexit referendum. In January 2013, we won an Information Tribunal case against the UK Government over its refusal to publish a list of the names, locations and religions of groups applying to set up free schools which, as a result, are now published automatically during each wave of applications.
- We support local campaigns against proposed new faith schools, as well as to make existing ones more inclusive. In 2019 this has involved working with local activists to oppose new fully selective faith schools. Since 2010 other local campaign work has included supporting the aforementioned legal challenge in Richmond-upon-Thames, as well as campaigns in Kingston, Malton, the Isle of Wight, Solihull and Surrey.
- We have also been working against new religious free schools. We are particularly concerned that the additional freedoms that academies and free schools enjoy around admissions, employment, and the curriculum allow them to religiously discriminate more than was previously possible in state-funded schools, and that a wider diversity of state-funded faith schools are opening. We are also deeply concerned that the Church of England and Catholic Church both seem to see the academies programme as an opportunity to take control of community schools with no religious character that convert to academy status. The CofE in particular said in 2013 that it aimed to gain 200 new schools in the next five years. A decade ago its ambition was 100 new schools in the next ten years.
- In 2016 we launched our whistleblowing site, Faith Schoolers Anonymous, to provide parents, pupils, teachers, and other stakeholders with a platform to share their experience of indoctrination, discrimination, and other forms of poor practice in faith schools.
- We are a founding member of the Accord Coalition – a broad coalition of organisations working for reform of state funded schools to make them more inclusive in matters of religion or belief. Accord brings together religious and non-religious supporters of change as well as teaching unions, human rights organisations and high profile individuals.
You can help us by opposing proposals for state-funded religious schools in your area, and working to make new ones more inclusive. You could make representations, set up a new campaign against any proposals, or get involved in school governance or your council’s overview and scrutiny committee. If you want to start a campaign or hear of any possible school changes proposed in your area, please email us.
You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.