The new Equality Bill may be working its way through Parliament, but Wandsworth Council is still wholeheartedly endorsing religious discrimination and segregation in education.
A recent edition of Brightside, the magazine of Wandsworth Council, proudly announced that a “New Catholic school comes a step closer”. The Council has announced that the Saint John Bosco school will be the only completely new school to be built in the borough as part of the government-funded ‘Building Schools for the Future’ project.
Unfortunately, for the non-Catholics amongst us, this will be yet another religious school in Wandsworth that discriminates against the children of non-religious parents and those of the ‘wrong’ faith.
Just take a look at some of the admissions criteria for Wandsworth’s new state school:
• Baptised Catholic students whose parent(s) and themselves are active committed Roman Catholics.
• Baptised Catholic students who are active committed Roman Catholics.
• Baptised Catholic students who are currently attending a Roman Catholic school.
• Baptised Catholic students for whom there is evidence that the Church (e.g. parent(s), priest, parish worker or godparent) is actively and prayerfully working for their Roman Catholic upbringing.
• Christians who are active in their churches which are in membership of Churches Together in England.
• Other students, subject to their numbers and/or attitudes not endangering the Catholic ethos of the school.
There’s a further warning on the Wandsworth Council website that the Governors will “request proof of baptism and evidence of practice from the relevant Parish Priest or Minister.”
How on earth can such backward and antiquated discrimination against the non-religious be allowed in modern Britain?
The National Secular Society has consistently campaigned against faith schools, arguing that they are unjust, discriminatory and detrimental to community cohesion. Many experts seem to agree.
For example, research from London South Bank University demonstrates that the only way to achieve full integration in our communities is for all children to be educated together from primary stage. These findings are backed up by a new study carried out by Psychologists at the University of Ulster on the effects of integrated and segregated schooling in Northern Ireland. They found that sectarianism could be defused if more Catholic and Protestant children were sent to mixed-religion schools. Further recent research by the LSE and the Institute of Education demonstrates that religious schools not only fail to improve standards, but also create ‘social sorting’ of children along lines of class, ability and religion.
By endorsing faith schools, Wandsworth is colluding with religious organisations in segregating children by their parent’s faith – and often as an indirect result, by their race. Many areas of Wandsworth, like most other London boroughs, while being very multicultural remains heavily segregated. We desperately need less division in our communities, not more.
Faith schools are notorious for ‘cherry-picking’ the most promising children from the most affluent families, resulting in a version of ‘private schooling on the rates’. The effect is to deprive community schools of such pupils, making their already-difficult task nearly impossible. Religious schools may well be popular with parents lucky enough to get their children into them, but less so with the population as a whole who just want good schools, not religious schools. An ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper found two thirds of the population said there should be no state funded faith schools at all.
So why is the Labour Government, and Tory opposition for that matter, so intent on handing over the education of children to religious organisations?
I put that question in a letter to local MP Sadiq Khan, but have yet to receive a response. Perhaps this is unsurprising. After all, the honourable member for Tooting is a well known advocate of mixing religion and politics and was the former Chairman of Tooting’s Gatton Primary, a state funded Muslim faith school which, in its own words, aims to: “inculcate in pupils the character and religion to live as a true Muslim.”
What makes the whole situation even more perverse is that there is little doubt that religious belief is in serious decline. Normal Sunday attendance at churches in England in 1980 exceeded 10% of the population. Today it’s around 6% and is projected by Christian Research to drop to 1.2% by 2050. The Government’s own latest Social Trends Survey revealed that 45.8% of British people now regard themselves as non-religious. In light of such findings how can anyone justify an expansion of religious schools?
The faith school system gives the religious, or those that pretend to be religious, greater choice while leaving the non-religious seriously disadvantaged. With state funded ‘minority’ faith schools on the increase, the situation is only going to get worse.