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UK: How faith schools get away with anything — and lawfully!

by Hasan Suroor

Wednesday 9 July 2008

(Published in: The Hindu, 9 July 2008)

The existing statutes governing faith schools in England and Wales give them enormous discretion .

It is a case which will surprise those (and one presumes that means most of us) who believe that religion is about faith rather than ethnicity and that all followers of a particular faith, irrespective of whether they were born into it or converted, should be treated as equal in law.

The case relates to an 11-year-old boy who was turned down by a prominent state-funded London Jewish school because his mother was not an ethnic Jew (a Roman Catholic she converted to Judaism before he was born), even though his father is a born Jew — and both parents are practising Jews.

The boy’s father challenged the decision arguing that the school had breached race laws as it had applied ethnic rather than religious criterion in deciding his son’s case.

The High Court, however, ruled in favour of the school even though its admissions policy effectively creates two classes of believers within the same faith — a caste-system of sorts. Critics say that for religious hardliners who run the school to follow such an exclusivist and divisive admission policy is bad enough, but for a secular court to give it legal legitimacy makes it worse.

The truth, however, is that it is not the court’s fault. The problem is the existing statutes governing faith schools in England and Wales which give them enormous discretion to apply religious-based norms.

“There is nothing wrong with the ruling. The judge has simply interpreted the existing law,” one expert told me.

Indeed, the judge who gave the ruling said that what the school had done was “not materially different from that which gives preference in admission to a Muslim school to those who were born Muslim, or preference in admission to a Catholic school to those who have been baptised.” Striking down the school’s decision could upset the “admission arrangements in a very large number of faith schools, of many denominations,” he observed.

It is also argued that since Jews are supposed to inherit their faith from the maternal side, the school was right in turning the boy whose mother was not a born-Jew.

Yet, the question remains: can a secular society, even one with an established church, countenance palpably discriminatory practices in the name of religious freedom and multiculturalism? (Paraxodically some might argue that, in fact, it is secularism carried too far! In either case, there is something wrong with such a policy.) Can a British citizen, like the boy in this case, be denied his legitimate right to education of his choice not because he is not good enough academically but simply because he doesn’t meet a religious group’s cultural requirements?

What if tomorrow, a faith school run by Muslim fundamentalists decides to refuse admission to girls claiming that their particular sect of Islam does not permit it? Will that be acceptable too?

After all, the whole problem with the demand for British Muslims to be allowed to practise Sharia is that many of its aspects are seen to be inconsistent with Britain’s secular cultural ethos. Indeed, the Sharia issue was brought up by the boy’s lawyer Dinah Rose, QC, who told the court that the case went to the heart of the debate over the extent to which Sharia should be accommodated.

Critics argue that it is one thing for an independently-funded school to do what it pleases, though even there are limits to how “exclusive” or exclusivist it can be, but it is quite another for a school funded with taxpayers’ money to practise discrimination, no matter what the rationale.

Understandably, the boy’s parents — to protect his identity, he has been named only as “M” — are dismayed. It has emerged that other children from similar backgrounds have also been turned down by the same school. Ironically, the school has no problem with “committed atheists” so long as their Jewish background is kosher.

Faith schools have always been dogged by allegations of a lack of transparency in admissions. As the term suggests, they are run by private religious societies but many (especially the Church schools) are funded by the government. The first Hindu state-aided faith school should be up and running soon.

While such schools are required to conform to national curriculum and are subjected to same sort of inspections as other government schools, they are allowed to use faith-based rules for admission. This results in such schools, especially those run by ethnic minorities like Muslims and Sikhs, often turning into same-faith ghettoes. A plan to require newly-established faith schools to set aside up to a quarter of places for children from other faiths was dropped after a strong protest from religious groups, particularly the Catholic Church.

Some faith schools are also accused of packing their staff with co-religionists in breach of equal opportunity and race laws but the most common complaint relates to admissions. Some of the best schools outside the independent sector are faith schools and because they are oversubscribed they tend to follow a highly selective admissions policy which is at odds with the government’s official line against selection. The government believes that all children, irrespective of their ability or background, should be entitled to the same quality of education and selection is bad. But it has failed to enforce the line — perhaps a unique case of not being able to call the tune despite having to pay the piper.