How religious selection in schools brings misery to parents and children

‘my child should not be penalised and put at the bottom of a long, long list just because his parents don’t have a particular belief. This just seems all so, so wrong’

The Fair Admissions Campaign aims to end religious selection in schools
The FAC aims to end religious selection in schools

Every year, hundreds of thousands parents find themselves unable to get their children into their local schools due to the religiously-selective admissions criteria that many of them employ. On its own, this is little more than state-funded religious discrimination, but it also has the corollary effect of unfairly limiting the choice of vast swathes of the population who are either of the ‘wrong’ religion, or who aren’t religious at all. Of course, this can be more of a problem in some areas than it is in others.

Take, for example, the case of one mother from Farnham in Surrey, who got in touch with the Fair Admissions Campaign, a group set up to bring an end to religious selection:

‘Of the 10 schools closest to us, only 2 do not require you to attend Church or follow the Christian faith. My daughter was rejected by the 4 schools we listed and instead placed in the worst school in our area. It is a failing school that has been placed in special measures and we have heard of numerous accounts of parents removing their children due to bullying. We chose to live here because of the schools and to be close to one set of parents. At the time we made that decision, neither of us were aware of the admissions policies.’

She went on to say that ‘to judge a FOUR YEAR OLD on her religious beliefs is ridiculous.’ 

Regrettably, limits to parental choice of this kind are extremely common. In Kensington and Chelsea for instance, around 60% of places are subject to religious criteria:

‘My wife and I have been going through the process of applying for a primary school place for our son.  We live in Kensington and Chelsea.  Forced to take a close look at how the system worked, we were appalled to see the distorting effect that faith schools had on our choice.  We’re not fans of the concept in general but were particularly aggrieved when it became clear that, because all even half-decent schools in K&C are oversubscribed, we had less choice of taxpayer-funded schools than someone whose child was a Catholic, has been baptised, etc.  Any of those people can of course apply to a non-faith school and get an equal chance of a place to us but the converse is not true.’

Unsurprisingly, parents of the wrong or no faith are disproportionately disadvantaged by such criteria. The consequences of this are well-documented, as is attested to by this mother:

‘Like many parents, my nearest three schools are faith schools which are able to prioritise church-going children over non-church-going ones (two Christian, one Catholic). They are always heavily oversubscribed…Speaking to other parents, I’ve confirmed what I thought were simply my negative suspicions – parents attending church purely to get a place at these schools. They begrudge their lost Sundays, but they do it.’

Unwilling to do the same, she was forced to apply for a place at a  school with no religious character further away from home and, in her own words, ‘cross my fingers, expecting to spend 2012/3 in appeals’.

As it currently stands therefore, the system rewards parents who lie about their religion in order to get their children into school, with a recent poll suggesting that as many as 36% of parents have done this or would be willing to. Conversely, the system penalises and drastically limits the choice of parents who rightly feel uncomfortable with this. As this particular mother put it, ‘my child should not be penalised and put at the bottom of a long, long list just because his parents don’t have a particular belief. This just seems all so, so wrong’.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the Fair Admissions Campaign website in July 2015. 

Creationist teaching was commonplace at my state school

“teachers made blatant attempts to conflate evolution with the uglier aspects of human nature. Parallels between Darwinism and Nazism where rife”

2016 05 13 LW v1 Emmanuel 1In 2002 the British Humanist Association (BHA) received complaints about alleged creationist activities at Emmanuel College in Gateshead, a secondary state school which reportedly was presenting the theory of evolution as ‘a matter of faith’. The BHA organised a letter from 43 scientists and philosophers to the Prime Minister, but at the time neither the Government nor Ofsted moved to address the concerns. Here, a former pupil who recently left the school recounts her experience of the kind of teaching that led to the controversy.     

Christian teaching was pervasive, and the personal beliefs of the staff were regularly aired in some bizarre contexts. A physics teacher told my class that we should remember that the red wire electrical circuit was ‘positive’ as it was the same colour as the blood of Christ.

Evolution was taught in biology under duress. The staff made it clear that this part of the curriculum was delivered only because it is legal obligation. Much was made of the phrase ‘theory’; the word was abused and manipulated in an attempt to convey evolutionary science as intellectual speculation. Instead of explaining how in scientific parlance a theory is a convergence of multiple independent conclusions, it was disingenuously used as a slur.

On many occasions teachers made blatant attempts to conflate evolution with the uglier aspects of human nature. Parallels between Darwinism and Nazism where rife. Their depiction of philosophical implications of accepting evolution as fact yet another act of intellectual dishonestly.

Emmanuel embraced Young Earth Creationism and Biblical literalism. The events of Genesis were portrayed as historical fact; though in hindsight, they never clarified which version of the creation myth was cannon. The library was well stocked with the likes of Ken Ham, and a discredited geologist lectured on the ‘evidence’ within rock strata for a global catastrophic flood.

Every day started with either an Evangelical assembly or Bible study. Sometimes the staff showed shocking naivety. One lesson focused on Ephesians 5, which commands women to obey their husbands. Subjugating 50% of the populous based on some sort of genital apartheid is God’s will, we were told. Some of us read on, uninstructed, to Ephesians 6:5, which entreats slaves to obey their masters. When one of us asked why slavery is no longer endorsed by society, we were told that this verse must be read in historical context. Why one exhortation is context-bound and the other isn’t was never revealed.

Sixth form students were obligated to take a non-UCAS credited course known as PTE: Philosophy, Theology and Ethics. Ostensibly this was a mind-broadening exercise to help young people navigate a morally complex world. The reality was that it was Christian propaganda that culminated in an interview to determine our moral standing.

There was little anti-Semitism, but on one telling occasion the religious studies teacher (holding a degree in theology) informed the class that Jews believe the goyem (non-Jews) are Hell-bound. Given that Judaism has little to say about the afterlife in general, this is disconcerting.

Homophobia was actively practised. We were taught that to be gay was a sin that would condemn a soul to Hell. I personally had moved to Emmanuel to escape homophobic bullying in my previous school, so I already had a well-developed sense of self-loathing. Within my first term I developed anorexia nervosa; while I recovered without any lasting physical damage, I endured problems around eating and body image for 10 years after. To attribute my eating disorder to this toxic environment alone is facile, but it certainly was a significant factor.


How many times should I have to decide I don’t want my child to attend worship?

“nobody gives him forewarning of collective worship activities and, by the time they start, he is too nervous/scared he’s going to get in trouble to stand up and leave the assembly.”

boy prayingThe legal requirement placed on all state-funded schools in the UK to enforce a daily act of collective religious worship is a bizarre feature of our education system, and one that is rightly regarded as an illiberal and indefensible affront to freedom of religion and belief.

Well, almost indefensible. A defence of it does exist. It’s not a good defence, but it is nonetheless one that’s often parroted by exponents of this discriminatory practice. It’s called the ‘right of withdrawal’ – the option, in other words, to opt children out of the worship requirement. There are many reasons why this ‘right’ is inadequate, but chief among them is that despite the fact that parents shouldn’t have to opt their children out of compulsory religious worship in the first place, they often end up having to do so many more times than just the once.

So, before we pick up our case study, bear in mind that even before this parent got in touch with us to ask for advice, she’d effectively decided twice before that she didn’t want her child to be involved in any worship, much less forced worship. The first time was simply when she decided that she was not religious, and, as is her right, took the decision to bring up her children in line with that conviction. That should really have been the end of it.

Unfortunately, in the UK, the need for a fresh decision on this score follows shortly after when the mother, whose child has reached school age, is forced to discount a number of the state schools in her area on the grounds that those schools have a religious character that she does not share. Instead, she decides she’d like to send her child to an open and inclusive community school with no religious character or ethos, and which welcomes those of all faiths and none. Of course, given that in many parts of the country, for reasons of geography or otherwise, church schools are the only viable option for non-religious parents, this is a choice that’s not available to many, but we’ll forget that for now. The decision not to apply to a ‘faith’ school is, in effect, the second time she has decided that she doesn’t want her child to engage in worship.

This is where we pick up the case study – one of the many that we’re contacted about every week. Here, the mother who got in touch with us explains how she made decision number three, the opt out that’s written into law:

‘My nine year old son has just started year 5, and has been excused from collective worship for about a year now. When I first gave the school the letter, in person, I was told that he could miss collective worship but that nobody would be available to supervise him. I said that this was fine.’

Setting aside the fact that the school is actually legally required to supervise the child, the mother decided that for all the risk of her son feeling excluded or being singled out by his peers – one of the many important problems with the right of withdrawal – he deserved the right to be free from undue influence and religious proselytising while he was young. That, as far as the law goes, should now definitely be the end of it.

Unfortunately, and this is so often the case, the school were not particularly cooperative in facilitating the withdrawal of the child:

‘Since then, it has come to light that he has been attending collective worship in assembly because nobody gives him forewarning of collective worship activities and, by the time they start, he is too nervous/scared he’s going to get in trouble to stand up and leave the assembly.’

So where does this leave the mother? Well unfortunately, decision number three doesn’t appear to have been worth the paper it was written on, so, understandably irritated, she got in touch with the school again:

‘I was gentle with [my son] about this situation for a while, not wanting to force him into an awkward situation, but eventually, I sent a letter to the school to remind them of the exemption and to ask them to give him some warning of religious assemblies.’

That’s decision number four. Surely, with the school caught red-handed failing to comply with a legal requirement, this will be the end of it. But no:

‘The response has been that they are happy for him to avoid collective worship, but that nobody is going to forewarn him. His teacher said he doesn’t know what’s going to happen in assembly and that [he] is in year five so should be dealing with it himself.’

Decision number four, it seems, carried just about as much weight as the three that went before it.

That’s now four separate occasions on which this parent, in our liberal, democratic, and broadly secular state, has chosen to excuse her child from having to worship a god she doesn’t believe in, at a school with no registered religious character, and on all four occasions she’s been unsuccessful. This happens all the time.

Let it not be said, though, that in life there are no happy endings. Just when she thought all hope was lost, she managed to arrange a meeting with the head teacher and after an exchange of words, the school finally acquiesced. The child would be withdrawn. The fifth decision, in a meeting with a head teacher that should never have had to take place, was finally successful.

Or was it? There’s every chance she’ll have to go through all of this again at secondary school.