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The British Social Attitudes Survey has found that 52% of Brits are atheist or do not belong to any religion. In this era of plummeting religious belief, it is worth examining whether there is a place for state-funded faith schools in British society.

The majority of UK state faith schools, 68%, are Church of England. The leadership of the Church of England insists that faith schools are inclusive. However, research conducted by the Humanists last year in their report, Non-religious need not apply, strikes at the heart of this defence. The report found that 40% of all state faith secondary schools in England discriminate against non-religious families, by giving priority to families of any religion, regardless of whether or not that religion corresponds to that of the school.

Catholic schools are the worst offenders for this kind of discrimination with 60% of Catholic schools discriminating against non-religious families in this manner. Twenty-five percent of Church of England schools do so also, as do 20% of Islamic schools. These figures mean that non-religious families have their access restricted to 240,000 more state secondary places in England than they would if this discrimination did not exist. This unacceptable state of affairs has the legal character of a human rights violation and severely handicaps the ability of religious leaders to claim that faith schools serve the entire community.

Another defence mounted by proponents of faith schools is that they offer a very high standard of education, and should be preserved on this basis. It is true that the quality of schooling provided at state faith schools is good; 81% of all Church of England primary and middle schools are rated good or outstanding, in comparison with 77% of all non-faith schools. Is this exceptional standard due to the faith-based nature of the schooling or attributable to the fact that these schools are selective, and selective schools perform better than comprehensives? Proponents of faith schools argue the former, highlighting the impact of the religious ethos that such schools instil in their students. However, disadvantaged children are underrepresented at faith schools. According to the Education Policy Institute, at an average faith secondary school, the odds of a child being eligible for free school meals is at around two-thirds of that for all children living in the local area. Indeed, when characteristics such as deprivation and prior attainment are controlled for, the attainment gap between faith and non-faith state schools significantly decreases. In short, faith schools have no special character, they are simply selective and ultimately as good as any other good school.

Finally, state faith school defenders argue that the existence of these schools is vital in upholding Article 2(1) of the ECHR, which protects the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. Though Article 2(1) grants parents this right, it does not correspondingly give the State a positive obligation to create or subsidise any particular education system or school. For example, religious schools exist in France, but they are private institutions that operate without state funding.

In 2019, ONS figures showed that the number of irreligious people in Britain has increased by 46% since 2012. Of those aged 18-24, a mere 1% identify as Church of England. In 2018, Church of England service attendance reached a record low of 722,000, compared to 1.2 million 30 years ago.

These figures point to the conclusion that there is no longer a place for state faith schools. However, the UK is not a secular state. Indeed, we are far from it with a monarch who doubles as religious leader, and twelve archbishops and bishops sitting in the House of Lords in the quaintly named ‘Lords Spiritual’ conclave.

Yet alongside our flourishing atheism, there are no popular calls for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to be ejected from the House of Lords or for the Queen to reject Anglicanism. Religious institutions still form an important part of the fabric of British life. Church of England volunteers contribute over 23 million hours of community work per month and the number of parcels given out by church-run food banks has increased by 20% since last year. In this context, the existence of a place for state faith schools in modern Britain appears more certain.  After all, 60% of all state faith schools are not discriminating against non-religious families, but are serving their communities well and inclusively, at a generally high education standard. If this increasingly irreligious nation can tolerate a non-secular State and its accompanying accoutrements, then why not well functioning, inclusive state faith schools? The principle behind state faith schools is easily attacked, but ultimately, the de-funding of good schools is unnecessary.

Indeed, in this pragmatic country, there will perhaps always be a place for state-funded faith schools that serve the whole community and deliver good education. There will not, however, be a place for schools of the ilk that reject children from non-religious families. If this practice is stamped out, the future of state-funded faith schooling in the UK is bright, and to remove or de-fund them, counterproductive.

Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue.