Religious Schools in the UK and the Right to Religious Freedom
Historically the Church played a large part in UK schools. Before the state took over, most schools were run by, or were part of, a religious organisation. According to the Education Act 1944, every state-funded school had to start the school day with a session of collective worship involving all pupils. Until relatively recently this would almost inevitably mean Christian-based worship. However, in recent years the UK has become both more secular and one which contains people of many different faiths.
Although the Church of England remains the state religion of the UK, the observance of other denominations and religions has been rising, whilst attendance at Church of England services has been falling. This has led to some schools offering more inclusive, non-denominational forms of religious activity, or ones which focuses on the religion or religions which predominate at the school.
An individual’s right to religious freedom – and not to be treated differently because of their beliefs – is enshrined in UK human rights law.
Religious Schools in the UKUnder the terms of the Education Act 1944, religious groups could apply to set up state-funded religious schools, also known as faith schools. Current statistics show that approximately 1/3 of state-funded schools are religious or faith schools and that nearly ¼ of pupils attend such schools.
Some have voiced concerns that religious schools may represent an undermining of British traditions and cultures. However, the overwhelming majority of religious schools are Christian. Further, despite the falling numbers of those attending Church of England services, most of these Christian schools represent the Church of England or other British Christian denominations. In fact, all of the non-Christian religious schools together constitute less than 1% of the total number of religious schools in the UK.
At primary level the religion or denomination with the highest number of schools was the Church of England, with Roman Catholicism having the highest number at secondary level.
The Rules which Apply to State-Funded Religious Schools in the UKReligious schools must comply with many of the same requirements as non-religious schools in order to qualify for state funding. This includes the requirement to follow the National Curriculum and to have fully qualified teachers. In addition, state-funded religious schools are under the same obligation as non-religious schools to actively promote “community cohesion”.
Although many of the fundamental principles for state-funded schools do apply there are some major differences. In particular the following special rules apply to religious schools:
- Admissions criteria – under the equality laws which apply to all schools, religious schools cannot favour children from a particular faith - unless the number of applications exceeds the number of places available. If a religious school is oversubscribed it is allowed to apply pre-determined admissions rules relating to the school’s faith when selecting pupils. These rules may be set by the school or religious organisation but must be clear and objective. (However, a 2009 UK Supreme Court judgment overruled the religious criteria applied by an oversubscribed religious school.)
- Staff – religious schools are allowed to take into account the faith of an individual when considering staff applications, as well as that individual’s ability to support the religious ethos of the school. This means that an applicant’s private life – including, for example, their sexual orientation - could be taken into account.
Are Religious Schools Fair?Religious schools are specifically exempt from the equality law which says that no one should be discriminated against because of their religion – allowing them, in some circumstances, to give preference to children (and staff) from the relevant faith.
Overall children at state-funded religious schools tend to perform better academically than those at non-religious schools. However, religious schools also tend to have fewer pupils who qualify for free school meals. The inference that can be drawn from this is that children at religious schools may be from more affluent backgrounds than children at ordinary schools. In addition, religious schools tend to have fewer pupils who are classified as having Special Needs. This has led to concerns that religious schools somehow use their special rules on admission to cream off the “best” pupils from the local area.
If religious schools really do offer a better education, some argue that it cannot be right for priority to be given to those from the relevant faith as this discriminates against those with different religious beliefs – or with no religious belief at all. On the other hand, those of a particular faith may argue that it would discriminate against them if they were not able to educate their children in a way which is compatible with their beliefs.