An email popped into my inbox on Tuesday morning urging me to join a ‘fair admissions campaign’ that’s been launched by a couple of mums in Shepherd’s Bush. Their children are at a local primary school and they’re angry that they won’t be able to get them into any of the local faith schools. ‘Two of our children are in Year Five and we feel offended by the fact that out of 11 secondary schools in the borough almost half will put them at the very bottom of the waiting list due to our “wrong” beliefs,’ they write.
Now, I’m probably among the dozen or so local residents least likely to join this campaign but, to be fair, I don’t think they singled me out. Rather, they sent the same email to hundreds of people, hoping to cash in on the fact that Tuesday was ‘National Offer Day’, the day when parents who’ve applied to state secondaries learn their children’s fate.
I have some sympathy for these women. One of the reasons I helped set up the West London Free School is because I, too, was unhappy about the quality of education being offered by the local secular comprehensives. But that was five years ago. There are three new secondary schools in the borough now — two of them free schools — and the old ones have got better. For instance, the percentage of children getting five A–Cs in their GCSEs including English and maths at Fulham Cross Girls’ School was 48 per cent in 2008, compared to 69 per cent in 2013. The gap in quality between local comprehensives and local faith schools is closing.
However, I’m afraid that’s where my sympathy ends. What parents who complain about being excluded from faith schools don’t understand is that the reason they’re above average — which is why they want to send their children to them in the first place — is precisely because of their religious ethos. To a great extent, that ethos depends upon being able to reserve a majority of their places for children of a particular faith. It follows that if the schools in question adopted a ‘fair’ admissions policy, i.e. admitted children of all faiths and none, they’d lose their distinctive ethos and become more bog standard. In effect, if the faith schools did what these mothers are asking and adopted ‘fair’ admission arrangements, they wouldn’t want to send their children to them.
But, of course, the arrangements aren’t in the least bit unfair. The two mums who have started this campaign claim the reason it’s wrong for faith schools to discriminate in this way is because they’re funded by the state and, as such, shouldn’t prioritise the children of some taxpayers over others. But it’s inevitable that all state schools will discriminate in favour of some taxpayers. Generally speaking, secular schools prioritise those children who live closest to their gates. Aren’t they being equally ‘unfair’, given that those parents who live outside the catchment areas are also taxpayers? If it’s ‘unfair’ to prioritise one set of taxpayers over another, then all schools are guilty of the same sin.
A better argument the women could make is that the percentage of places available at faith secondary schools in the borough is higher than the percentage of borough residents who share those faiths. They sort of make this argument when they claim that ‘almost half’ of the schools in Hammersmith and Fulham are faith schools.
In fact, only three of the 11 secondary schools in Hammersmith and Fulham reserve a majority of their places for children of a particular faith, all of them Christian. That’s 27 per cent. When did 27 per cent become ‘almost half’? And even if it was ‘almost half’ that wouldn’t be a knockdown argument since, according to the 2001 census, 64 per cent of the borough’s population describe themselves as ‘Christian’.
The fundamental point missed by those who campaign against faith schools is that Christians are taxpayers too and many of them want their children to attend schools with a Christian ethos surrounded by children who share their faith. If all schools became secular, most of these parents would be forced to send their children to secular schools and that would be no more ‘fair’ than forcing secular parents to send their children to faith schools. It strikes me that the most liberal and tolerant position is to allow those taxpayers who want to send their children to faith schools to continue to do so.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.