This article appears in the Witness section of the Winter 2016 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

When news of the government’s new green paper on education emerged in September, most attention focused on the proposal that new grammar schools be opened. This would require new legislation to overrule the 1998 Education Act, which specifically barred the opening of more grammar schools – state secondaries where pupils are
selected by examination aged 10 or 11.

Yet in the same consultation paper was another suggestion: that further selection by faith should be permitted in state schools. Currently, an exception in the Equality Act 2010 means that all faith schools are legally permitted to have an admissions policy that selects children on religious grounds when the school is oversubscribed, though a school’s policy is set differently, depending on its type. New free schools and academies have a restriction written into their funding agreements: they cannot select more than half by faith, regardless of whether they are oversubscribed. The green paper proposed a relaxation of this rule, which was introduced in order to limit social segregation by faith.

A Downing Street source told the BBC that this admissions cap had failed and was effectively discriminating against Catholic schools. “It has failed to make minority faith schools more diverse, because parents of other religions and none do not send their children to those schools. But it has prevented new Catholic schools from opening, which are more successful, more popular and more ethnically diverse than other types of state school.” The source continued that changing the rule would allow more Catholic schools to open, and that all faith schools would be encouraged to do other work to make sure their pupils integrated with children of different backgrounds.

Already, more than a third of state-funded primary schools in England and Wales, and about one fifth of secondaries, are schools designated with a religious character (the legal term for faith schools). The number has increased in recent years, as has the number of new schools with a “faith ethos” which do not technically count as faith schools. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has been campaigning on the issue of faith schools for many years, maintaining that the right to freedom of religion does not translate to a right to state funding for religious schools.

BHA chief executive Andrew Copson condemned the green paper’s proposal about removing the restriction on faith-based admissions. “If the government moves to scrap the requirement that religious free schools must keep at least half their places open to local children, regardless of the religion or beliefs of their parents, they will be sending a very damaging message: that an integrated society is not worth striving for,” he said.

Prime Minister Theresa May has defended the need for an “element of selection” in the schools system, but progress on this bill is likely to be slow. Debate continues to rage on the highly emotive subject of grammar schools, and whether they help or hinder social mobility. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said it was “nonsense” and “tosh” that poor children would benefit from their reintroduction.

While the question of faith-based admissions has not received nearly the same level of attention, it would be severely damaging if already inadequate restrictions on selection by faith were reduced even further. In practice, it would mean more and more children being quietly divided on the grounds of religion.