On Sunday, Liberal Democrat Federal Conference will consider a motion about state funded faith schools and is invited to choose from three options regarding religious selection in faith school admissions. Liberal Democrat members should support Option A - which seeks to phase out religious selection - to signal that the party opposes discrimination and support improved integration.
It would seem absurd if patients could be turned away from and directed to different NHS hospitals because of their religion. There would be uproar if people could secure better access to public housing because of the place of worship they attend. It would appear nonsensical if people could only enlist in certain branches of the armed services on account of their or their family's religious beliefs. Yet we allow such selection when it comes to children accessing schools because over a third of state funded schools in England are faith schools that are currently permitted to have a religiously discriminatory admissions policy.
Faith schools are almost entirely state funded (a large and growing proportion are 100% state funded). Some already choose to not select pupils by faith, demonstrating how such schools can still uphold their religious ethos without discriminatory admission practices. Most developed countries with state funded faith schools do not permit the schools to select pupils by faith at all.
We should support also moving to a non-religiously selective school system because such selection is discriminatory. After all, the schools are only allowed to select children by faith because their admission arrangements are exempted from the prohibition against religious discrimination in the Equality Act. The preamble to our Party’s Constitution states that we should reject all forms of discrimination, including religious.
We should also support bringing religious selection to an end because segregating children and young people by religion and ethnicity is bad for community cohesion. A lot of segregation in the school system comes from self-segregation, and often reflects pre-existing residential segregation (though England is becoming more segregated, and its schools even more segregated than its neighbourhoods). However, lessons from history are stark. Ethnically segregated schools are a reoccurring feature in Northern Ireland as well as in towns in Northern England that experienced race riots in the summer of 2001. There are many roots to intercultural tension, but segregating children creates conditions where mistrust between groups of people can more readily reproduce and grow.
In contrast, evidence from academia highlights the major contribution ethnic and religious mixing in schools can make in boosting mutual understanding and forging bonds of trust in society. Such mixing takes better advantage of the nature of children and young people to form friendships that cross all barriers, whether of race, religion or socio-economic. Far from being a threat to belief or identify, religious and ethnic mixing in schools helps create the conditions where diversity and difference is better accepted.
Schools are the state funded institutions which should be doing most to prepare people for life in a mixed belief society. If we wish to take integration in society seriously, and so encourage schools to be shared spaces, we must look at faith schools because there are simply so many of them. Segregatory faith schools have a wider impact beyond their gates and local area. Not only do they make other nearby schools more segregated, but they validate a wider culture that says it is 'okay' for schools to be seen as belonging to and serving certain groups.
You may recall in the media in 2014 the Birmingham schools (or so called Trojan Horse) scandal. Some schools were found to be restricting the curriculum to exclude lessons about sex education and were reinforcing a cultural identity to the exclusion of others. None of these schools were faith schools.
Option B seeks to prevent religious selection in admissions serving as a proxy for socio-economic selection or racial discrimination. While well intended, it does not make sense because religious selection by England's state funded faith schools is inherently socioeconomic exclusive and racially discriminatory.
Option C seeks to prevent new faith schools selecting by faith and limiting existing ones to not selecting more than half of their pupils on these grounds. Though an improvement on the status quo, it would provide a weak position to argue for meaningful change in negotiation with other parties. It is also unfair as 98% of existing faith schools are Christian.
Education policy is at a crossroads. Society is becoming more and more diverse. Liberals of today should try and ensure future generations are left with secure foundations, not a legacy for fragmentation and division. Option A presents a fairer and much more meaningful way of moving towards a school system that is more religiously integrated, and which helps deescalate risk that segregation presents to equality of opportunity and cohesion.
Some opponents of reform have tried - and will presumably try again - to warn of a political cost of supporting such changes, but these are scare tactics. Labour did not take a hit when in 2006 it stopped faith schools being able to select pupils by faith when undersubscribed. We were not punished when the Coalition decided in 2010 to limit faith selection at faith free schools. Opinion poll evidence shows that a large majority of the public - including adherents of all the largest Christian denominations and major world faiths - oppose religious discrimination in faith school admissions.
Back in 1830 the Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Dr James Doyle, said before a Committee of the UK Parliament:
“I do not see how any man, wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can ever be permanently established, or the prosperity of the country ever well secured, if children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinions. I do not know any measure which would prepare the way for a better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age, and bringing them up in the same schools, leading them to commune with one another, and to form those little intimacies and friendships which often subsist through life. Children thus united, know and love each other, as children brought up together always will; and to separate them is, I think, to destroy some of the finest feelings in the hearts of men."
While the gender bias of Bishop Doyle's vocabulary has dated, his central tenet about how we should not erect barriers in childhood is stunningly prescient. Last summer's referendum defeat and the Leave campaign's successful appeals to xenophobia and nativism highlight the pressing need for improved cohesion. Promoting ethnic mixing at state funded schools is the easiest way that as a liberal democracy we can help boost integration in a diverse society. It should be promoted as a public good. Please support Option A.