Religious schools – pluralism or prescription?

The British Humanist Association's education officer raises some secular questions.

Marilyn Mason

Topics Politics

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Quietly as an iceberg, an important change floated over the education horizon in April 2001, with many parents, teachers and other taxpayers oblivious of its hidden implications.

The UK government published a bulky advertisement for itself, masquerading as a green paper on education – Schools: Building on Success – and briefly made the headlines because of a tactless reference to ‘the bog-standard comprehensive’. Now it seems to have drifted out of public consciousness again, overtaken in the news by foot-and-mouth disease and race relations.

But, again like an iceberg, the apparently innocuous tip of short-term concession to diversity, pluralism and parental choice hides a huge potential for long-term damage, hardly noticed by the national media. What lies beneath the surface of this initiative?

The green paper (1)

In Section 4.18 of the education green paper, the UK government congratulates itself on increasing ‘the number and variety of schools within the state system supported by the churches and other major faith groups’. In Section 4.19 it hopes to welcome more such schools, and in Section 6.20 proposes to ‘streamline the way that voluntary-aided schools receive funding for work on their premises…to reduce the contribution made by governing bodies to the costs of building work at these schools from 15 percent to 10 percent for capital items, and to remove the contribution altogether for revenue items. This will make life much easier for these schools and will further promote diversity’.

These changes to funding may not even require legislation (2). Education budgets are finite, and parents who would prefer their children to go to neighbourhood schools where children of all faiths and none are educated together, might like to ask where the money for more religious schools will come from. Making life easier for one kind of school may make life more difficult for others.

The ‘rechristianising’ of church schools

The church schools so warmly supported by the UK government are not simply proposing to expand, but also to become more distinctively Christian, to ‘nourish those of the faith…[and] challenge those who have no faith’. This aspect of the Church Schools Review Group report published in December 2000 (which, unsurprisingly, favoured expansion of church schools) got no publicity at all, probably because it did not figure in the bland summary then published on the web (3).

Parents who currently choose Church of England schools because they are local or because they are good schools (though rarely because they are religious) may be less happy about schools with such an overtly missionary purpose. Many people don’t mind their beliefs being challenged – but might think that to challenge only the beliefs of atheists, agnostics and humanists is educationally unsound and unfair on their children.


All religious schools, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or any other faith, discriminate in favour of their religious group, in practices such as worship, prayers and promoting the idea that morality and their religion are indivisible, and in admissions policies. Diversity (in practice often selection – for faith, for ability, for specialist curricula) often conflicts with parental choice. Already a (non-religious) parent in Livingstone, Scotland, is invoking the Human Rights Act to demand the admission of his son to the local Catholic school.


Religious schools are allowed to give religious instruction, in the place of religious education. Religious instruction can be single-faith and indoctrinatory; religious education is usually multi-faith, and relatively balanced and objective.

‘The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds….’ (4). How likely is this in some religious schools?

Institutionalised segregation

Religious groups support their own schools, of course (though not all want this separatism), but surely the role of government is not to pander to the short-term interests of minorities but to act for the long-term common good. Comprehensive community schools may well have served some minority groups badly, but this is a reason to improve these schools, not to segregate children by the faith of their parents.

Inevitably, some religious schools will be racially divisive, and this government promotion of institutionalised segregation seems an extraordinary path to go down, when racial tensions are in the news, and in Northern Ireland there are moves towards integrated schools.

The difficulties of dissent

The response form for Schools: Building on Success (5) contains no separate section to comment on the proposals for religious schools, conflating them with its proposals for specialist schools in Section 4. There is no space at all for comments on Section 6, on the funding of these schools. Dissent is not easy.

If the green paper is implemented, school changes will have to be opposed local authority by local authority, and school by school. And which bodies sit alongside representatives of the local education authority on the local ‘school organisation committees’ that decide on such changes? Strangely, for a democracy in the twenty-first century, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

The British Humanist Association will be publishing a pamphlet on religious schools by the Humanist Philosophers’ group in June (

(1) The green paper, Schools: Building on Success

(2) For example, see here

(3) A summary is available at, but you really need to read the whole thing

(4) Article 13, Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN, 1989

(5) Response form for Schools: Building on Success. The consultation period runs until 1 June 2001.

Read on:

Fragmenting education, by Toby Marshall and Dave Perks

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Topics Politics


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