Ever since Theresa May’s plans to expand the grammar school system were announced, the question of “fair” admissions policies has come up in almost every debate about the future of British schools. However, while grammar schools may have caught public interest and reignited old battles over social mobility and inequality, a much older conflict has been brewing in the background over a different type of selective education: faith schools.
While many schools are “of a religious character” and may set aside school time for prayer or observe certain religious occasions, faith schools place a greater emphasis on the religious life of the school community and may give priority to entrants who share their specific faith. Regulations state that faith schools must accept students from different religions if there are not enough religious applicants to fill all available places, but in practice this often means that some popular and oversubscribed schools can select all of their students by faith. Since the majority of faith schools are funded by the state, this has caused resentment among parents and accusations of discrimination from parliament and the press.
While recently-founded faith schools have previously had to cap the number of students they admit solely on the basis of faith, the present government has repeatedly stated its intention to drop the limit and allow schools to select up to 100% of their students based on religion. Moreover, despite the existing regulations, many faith schools have found ways to select a higher proportion of students based on religion than is officially permitted, and certain institutions face no restrictions at all. With the appointment of Damian Hinds, who backs the abolition of the cap, it seems increasingly likely that faith-based selection is set to expand at an unprecedented level.
The post-code lottery can already make it difficult for parents to find a good school within reach, and this problem is only compounded when the best school in the area might also come with a faith requirement. For parents who want a place at a faith school but practise a different religion, it can be incredibly difficult to determine what their chances are and what criteria they or they child would need to satisfy to be admitted. While Church of England schools usually do have a reasonable intake of non-CofE students, Catholic schools are often far more restrictive, and the process of gaining entry can be quite involved.
Until recently, Catholic schools each used their own different criteria to determine students’ faith, questioning parents about their religious practices and checking attendance at Mass. In 2016, however, the Certificate of Catholic Practice was introduced, which aimed to eliminate uncertainties about the necessary entry criteria and provide a uniform standard across Catholic faith schools. Certificates of Catholic Practice are signed by the student’s parish priest, and it is up to the priest to decide what constitutes a “practising Catholic”. The removal of arbitrary criteria for faith school priority may help clarify matters for some parents, and the Certificate is designed to allow flexibility for differing familial circumstances, but it has come under fire for creating its own uncertainties, and is perceived in some quarters to be too lax.
Over a third of state-funded schools in the UK are designated as faith schools, and, with the planned removal of the faith-based admissions cap and the creation of new faith schools still in full swing, it seems likely that more and more parents will find themselves on the wrong side of the system. It is possible that a growing sense of discrimination may force the debate into the limelight, but until then parents will have to navigate the process by themselves. For parents without access to an independent or grammar school option, faith schools can make an appealing alternative to comprehensives, but if you find yourself locked out of your favourite school, the only option is to take matters into your own hands.