Five reasons to be concerned about faith schools being free to teach their own version of RSE

Challenging these bigoted and discriminatory attitudes, particularly in faith schools, is one of the many crucial purposes that good RSE should serve.

This week, the Government announced that it will move to make relationships and sex education (RSE) compulsory in all English schools, finally answering the decades-long calls of a rich consensus of education and children’s rights charities, public health experts, parents, teachers, and children themselves.

The move is not before time. The last time any action was taken on RSE was way back in the year 2000, when the Government of the time published the existing, but now prehistoric, official Sex and Relationships Education guidance for schools. This 17-year inertia was hugely irresponsible, and for the millions of children who have gone through school ill-informed about things like healthy relationships, safe sex, consent, sexting, and various LGBT and gender issues, it has been hugely damaging too.

To be clear then, the news that RSE will become a statutory subject is absolutely to be welcomed…but cautiously so. 

Contained within the Government’s proposals is a clause requiring that any RSE provided in schools must be ‘appropriate having regard to…the religious background of the pupils’. And in the written ministerial statement announcing the move, the Department for Education states that ‘faith schools will continue to be able to teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith.’

If you’re unclear about what this means, here are five reasons why you should be very, very concerned. Each takes the form of a brief quote from those who advocate teaching RSE, to use the DfE’s ominous words, ‘in accordance with the tenets of their faith’.

  1. ‘For many years, sex and relationship education has not provided a godly stance on sexuality or sexual relationships. Instead, it reflects our society’s increasingly liberal sexual norms.’

From Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern, which among other things has recently campaigned to oppose the extension of hate crime offences to sexual orientation and gender identity.

  1. ‘Some are wedded to the notion of “children’s reproductive-health rights” – a euphemism for the “right” of children to engage in unlawful sexual intercourse, with confidential access to contraception and abortion.’

From Normal Wells, Director of the Family Education Trust, a ‘national educational trust which researches the causes and consequences of family breakdown’ and states that sex education is ‘indoctrination’ designed to ‘tear down traditional moral standards’

  1. ‘Since the Church has always taught that sexual love should always find its true place in marriage, a homosexual partnership and a heterosexual marriage can never be equated. This is the case in English law. The Church seeks to affirm the homosexual as a person, but cannot approve of homosexual genital acts.’

From the Sex and Relationships Education policy of a state Catholic school in England, featured on Faith Schoolers Anonymous last year and subsequently changed.

  1. ‘Today there is an urgent threat to [children’s] sexual purity from immoral messages which come to them as part of formal education and through the media… If they have not had clear biblical teaching on the subjects of marriage, relationships and sex, young people will be unable to answer the evil one’s lies’

From Christian sex education provider Lovewise, which conducts presentations in schools, telling children – among other things – that ‘most rape victims regret abortion’, that ‘abortions dramatically increase the risk of depression and suicide’, and that homosexuality is ‘damaging to mind, body and spirit’.

  1. ‘[Young people] do have choices about how they live their lives and the HPV vaccine suggests they won’t be able to control themselves. We should have higher expectations for them and show them more respect, not vaccinate them en masse against STIs’

Until recently, advice that appeared on the website of anti-abortion group LIFE, which warned that the cervical cancer jab ‘gives young people another green light to be promiscuous.’

No child, regardless of their religious or non-religious background, should be subjected to discrimination, misinformation, and bigotry, least of all as part of a subject that should be equipping them to stay safe, to be respectful, and to be themselves.  But if the Government allows faith schools to opt out of providing accurate, evidence-based RSE to their pupils, that is exactly what is going to happen.  

FSA team

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We have a cap, not a quota, on religious selection

80Time and time again in the debate over the proposed scrapping of the 50 percent limit on religious selection by new state-funded religious schools, one claim has been repeated more than any other by proponents of the initiative that is simply not true.

It’s seen again in a recent piece by Harry Phibbs, for Conservative Home, when he writes:

Thus far new free schools have only been allowed to take a maximum of 50 per cent of pupils on the basis of their faith. Thus for instance if you were to open a new Roman Catholic school, and it was oversubscribed, only half of the pupils could be admitted on the basis of their faith. Once that quota is full, it is a legal requirement to turn away Roman Catholic children for simply being Roman Catholic.

That is quite absurd. So a “free” school does not have freedom over admissions.  A “faith” school is obliged to turn away children who follow its faith to make way for those who don’t. What meaning do these words have?

This is simply not true. We do not have a quota system, we have a cap system.

The difference is this: after a school has taken its 50 percent of pupils on the basis of faith, it then has to take the second 50 percent ‘without reference to faith’. But that is not the same as saying that it cannot take any more pupils of that faith. Instead, the second 50 percent affords everyone who applies equal opportunity to gain access to the school, regardless of their religion or belief.

It is almost certain that, for a Catholic school, a high proportion of applicants will be Catholics, and so a proportion of this second 50 percent will still be Catholics too. So actually the 50 percent cap is somewhat weaker than a 50 percent quota would be.

On top of that, over the years faith groups have found some clever, lawful, ways to manipulate the system and try and maximise their proportion within the faith, without breaking the 50 percent rule. One example is that if they are a minority faith school in a community with a high proportion of people of the faith, they might take their open 50 percent before their religious 50 percent, and use distance as the underlying tie-breaker. As the second 50 percent will be drawn from further afield than the first, this way they can be all but guaranteed to have a very high proportion of people of the faith amongst the open as well as the religious 50 percent.

Another way is to take all siblings under the open 50 percent, even if the older siblings already at the school gained entry under religious selection criteria themselves.

This is not to say the cap is worthless – in fact it’s been highly effective in reducing ethnic segregation particularly among Christian schools. It just illustrates that it doesn’t at all work in the hard way Mr Phibbs suggests.


The Government, itself, makes the same fallacy when it writes that ‘creates a barrier to setting up new schools because the Catholic Church believes their own rules mean they cannot prioritise admission of non-Catholic pupils.’ But once again, this isn’t what is happening. They are not being asked to prioritise non-Catholic families, just give them equal access.

We’ve also tried taking this up directly with Catholic lobbyists and others who have been perpetuating this confusion between cap and quota. Generally they have accepted the point, but argued that it is a subtlety parents wouldn’t understand.

So the Government blames the Catholic Church, and the Church blames the parents. But most Catholics, or indeed those of any religion or belief, don’t want religious selection at all. And on top of that, the ‘rules’ aspect of the claim is highly dubious: the CES’s parent body has said it does not support religious selection; most Catholic schools in other countries don’t religiously select; and most Catholic private schools in this country don’t either.

So why are we in this mess?

FSA team

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Where have all the children gone?

“We are lucky enough to live in a country and in a time in which one child going missing makes national news and provokes public outcry. And yet, when the children from almost an entire religious community go missing from the education system, year on year and by their thousands, our reaction and the reaction of our Government is to do almost nothing.”

There are a great many injustices embedded in the faith school sector of our education system. And as the Government moves to drastically increase the extent of religious discrimination and segregation in our schools, these injustices are only becoming further entrenched.

But which injustice is the worst? In a system that allows schools to discriminate against children on the basis of their parents’ religious or non-religious beliefs, forces countless parents to lie about their religion just to get their children into a local school, and requires children to compulsorily worship a god they likely don’t believe in, it can be hard to pick.

An insight into life in an illegal religious school

In truth, however, the answer is ‘none of the above’. The greatest injustice present in our system relates to the thousands of children that we know are absent from it, and the total lack of any meaningful action to address this.

The problem of illegal religious schools in this country is one that has received increasing attention in recent years. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has been the driving force behind much of this, working with former pupils of these schools, and with government officials and journalists from the print and broadcast media, to ensure that the issue never falls too far from the top of the agenda. Not before time, the relevant authorities have started to take an interest too.

Oftsed’s outgoing Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has now written to the Education Secretary four times to outline his findings and concerns over illegal religious schools, and for the first time Ofsted have a dedicated team focused on identifying and investigating these schools. Local authorities like Hackney and Birmingham are no longer turning a blind-eye to these issues, or passing the buck when challenged on their inaction. Instead, they are carrying out their own investigations into illegal religious schools, and through the Local Government Association asking Government for more powers to intervene where they suspect children are not receiving the mainstream education they are entitled to. Even the Department for Education (DfE) has started taking some responsibility, introducing provisions to prosecute the proprietors of illegal religious schools and to clamp down on supplementary religious schools that may also be operating illegally.

But for all the increased attention and concern, the perception remains that this is a problem that’s still shrouded in secrecy, hard to identify, hidden from the eyes of the authorities and the arm of the law. This perception is not correct. This is a problem well known to us.

Last week the Institute for Jewish Policy Research published a report entitled ‘The Rise and Rise of Jewish schools in the United Kingdom’. Here is a graph from the report showing strictly orthodox boys by age in secondary schools in Stamford Hill, Manchester, and Gateshead (the three areas in England with the largest Charedi communities):


The drop off in attendance at age 13, represented by the blue bars on the graph, is clear to see. As the report notes:

‘An estimated 1,400 strictly Orthodox children aged 11-15 years are being educated in Jewish schools or yeshivot which are not included in the Department for Education’s school census… Indeed, about half of strictly Orthodox boys aged 11-15 years do not appear in the strictly Orthodox school system. The issue is not as extreme, but still exists, at the younger ages within this range: about one-third of the boys aged 11-13 are not found in the data on strictly Orthodox schools.’

This, I hope you’ll agree, is shocking. But when the report was published last week, the only headlines it received related to the rise in the number of Jewish children attending faith schools. None of the articles covering the report mentioned the missing children or the schools not included in the DfE’s census.

There’s more where this comes from too. The graphs below are from an Independent article earlier this year, showing the number of Jewish children in full time education in Hackney according to the Department for Education’s school census. Hackney is thought to be home to as many as 30 unregistered Charedi schools:

Spot the difference

Again, you can see the problem here immediately. At the age of around 12/13, Jewish boys all but disappear from full time education.

Now you might ask how we know that when they disappear, they disappear into illegal religious schools. The answer is simple. No one has ever made any attempt to disguise this fact. Take as an example a report from 2007 produced by the Board of Deputies of British Jews:

“It can also be observed from Table 1 that the attendance figures for boys from Years 8 through 11 show a dramatic fall-off to almost zero. This is due to boys leaving these schools around the age of bar mitzvah in order to attend yeshivot (seminaries for young, unmarried men).”


This is a public report, drawing on official data from the Department for Education, which openly and uncritically acknowledges that when boys in the strictly Orthodox community reach their early teens it is normal for them to start attending illegal, unregistered schools and for the entirety of their education from there on in to be focused exclusively on the study of scripture. And before you begin to wonder what is wrong with this – deeply religious schools serving deeply religious communities – take some time to read about what these places are like from the former pupils who have shared their experiences on this site.

We are lucky enough to live in a country and in a time in which one child going missing makes national news and provokes public outcry. And yet, when the children from almost an entire religious community go missing from the education system, year on year and by their thousands, our reaction and the reaction of our Government is to do almost nothing. That has to change.

FSA team

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