Social cohesion and state-funded faith schools

Claire Dwyer

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on From multiculturalism to muscular liberalism? Faith and the future of integration

clairedwyerFaith schools are firmly established across the UK and are representative of a diverse range of faith groups, yet they are consistently opposed on the grounds that they inhibit social cohesion and accentuate existing social inequalities. In recent high-profile cases some faith schools have been forced to amend their admissions criteria, while others have found novel ways of addressing concerns about social segregation.

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On the 29th August 2013 the Schools Adjudicator required a leading Catholic state school, The London Oratory, to amend its admissions criteria.[1] The school could no longer consider the active service undertaken for the church by potential pupils or their parents in their weighting of pupils’ eligibility for places at the popular school. This ruling echoed a similar corrective to the admissions criteria of the equally oversubscribed catholic Cardinal Vaughan School in 2009. In the latter case the school had been referred to the Adjudicator by its own religious authorities, while The London Oratory was referred by the British Humanist Association, long an opponent of state-funded faith schools. In a somewhat different case, also in 2009, the Jewish Free School, was successfully challenged in the High Court that its admissions policy contravened the Race Relations Act, although this overturned a previously unsuccessful appeal to the Schools Adjudicator. Use of the mechanisms of the School Adjudicator or even the courts to curb or question the authority of faith schools to select their pupils on the basis of faith is evidence of the continuing ambiguity and controversy of state-funded faith schools in the UK. Such schools are both now firmly established, and representative of a diverse range of faith groups, and consistently opposed on the grounds that they inhibit social cohesion and accentuate existing social inequalities.[2]

MML CD1Our recently published research,[3] funded by the Leverhulme Trust and undertaken as part of a joint research programme at the Migration Research Unit, UCL, and the Centre for Ethnicity and Citizenship, University of Bristol, explores the role of state-funded faith schools in the context of debates about social cohesion. In the 1980s the question of state-funded Muslim schools became a powerful emblem of equality for some British Muslims. While often motivated by the lack of provision for Muslim children in existing state schools (through uniform codes, non-halal school meals or insufficient places in single sex secondary schools) it was representative of a more symbolic status of parity with other faith groups. A key contested site was Islamia Primary School in the London Borough of Brent, established by prominent Muslim convert Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and strongly opposed by the local education authority. In 1997, the incoming Labour government gave a green light for widening the number and character of state-funded faith schools in England, reflecting its dominant educational rhetoric of broadening parental choice. Islamia School opened as the first state-funded Muslim school in 1998, with the first Sikh school opening in 1999 and the first Hindu school in 2008.

However, the opening up of state-funding to new minority faith groups in the UK was not without controversy. Muslim schools in particular were subject to considerable hostility from right-wing opponents who saw them as bastions of ‘fundamentalism’, while many on the left saw the expansion of faith schools for minority faith groups as contrary to the principles of multicultural education. For the Labour government, faith schools remained ambivalent spaces. In 2001 the Cantle Report into the causes of urban unrest in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley raised concerns about communities living ‘parallel lives’ and noted the role of schools as sites of social interaction. As the government developed its community cohesion policy, schools were identified as key sites for the promotion of cross-cultural contact. Following legislation in 2007 there were two mechanisms by which the activities of faith schools could be monitored – their success in meeting schools’ community cohesion targets and their adherence to a newly introduced Admissions Code to be monitored by the schools adjudicator.

Our research explored the processes behind the introduction of these new mechanisms and their effects on state-funded faith schools. One interesting finding was that pressure on all faith schools to demonstrate that they were promoting social and ethnic equality, while it did not prevent disproportionate attention on minority faith schools, did result in a greater commitment from faith school providers to work with one another. Thus established faith communities in the UK – the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the Board of Deputies of British Jews – shared their expertise with some of the new faith schools.

MML CD2We examined how the different faith schools interpreted government policy on community cohesion. As demonstrated elsewhere,[4] the lack of conceptual coherence or easily measurable targets in community cohesion policies were a challenge for both schools and inspectors. Particularly striking was the effective ways in which different faith communities mobilised their own narratives of community cohesion. Thus they emphasised their theological commitments to tolerance, equality or social justice, providing evidence of community cohesion initiatives which spanned local to global scales.  Since community cohesion could be imagined in relation to a range of different indicators, neighbourhood relationships could be contrasted with wider networks of community. Another interesting narrative which effectively linked more established faith schools, such as those from earlier migrant faith communities such as Jews and Catholics, with newer Hindu, Sikh and Muslim schools, was the role of faith schools in providing social and economic mobility for immigrant groups. Such arguments worked particularly effectively within an educational policy environment which prioritised targets and ‘value-added’ scores. Our research emphasised both the success of faith school providers in challenging government policy narratives of community cohesion and the inherent malleability of those policies.

Islamic_Tarbiyah_Prep._School_-_Ambler_Street_-_geograph.org.uk_-_733465
Islamic Tarbiyah Preparatory School: An independent Islamic school in Bradford

However, faced with the second mechanism of control, the schools admissions codes, which were established specifically to ameliorate concerns about ‘fairness’ in the allocation of school place, and particularly the belief that more middle class pupils gained preferential access to the best faith schools, schools were sometimes less successful in challenging government policy. The reason why the Catholic Education Service referred one of their own schools, Cardinal Vaughan, to the schools adjudicator was that they feared that its failure to comply with government codes potentially threatened the status of all Catholic schools. The ruling about the Jewish Free School created controversy in the Jewish community, with some arguing that it marked a shift to the state determining the rules of membership of a faith community.  Our research suggested that other faith communities were similarly debating how their admissions policies of faith membership could be codified so that they could stand up in a court of law. Frequency and nature of religious worship emerged as the most measurable elements of faith practice.

MML CD3An educational policy which prioritises ‘choice’ in the allocation of the scarce resource of school places inevitably faces challenges dealing with oversubscription, particularly in inner city areas. Faith schools, in some places, have become the focus of such debates, often because they are seen as being ‘more successful’ then neighbouring state schools. While the presence of state-funded faith schools in the UK is unlikely to be threatened in the near future, and indeed many of the new free schools established by the current government have a religious foundation, controversies about how state-funded faith schools (from all faith groups) allocate places are likely to remain. State-funded faith schools remain ambivalent spaces and their presence is evidence of the pragmatic way in which the British state deals with religious identity. Their legacy is evidence of the long tradition of faith communities in the UK in providing social services. New faith schools first for Jewish and Catholic migrants, now for some Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities, can be taken as examples of  tolerance within a multicultural state which has recognised (if slowly) the need for parity between minority faith communities and the established church. However state-funded faith schools also put the spotlight onto the ways in which multiculturalism is negotiated in the UK. The case often made for state-funded faith schools is their success in promoting social mobility for minority groups. Minority faith schools also have a symbolic quality – parity is achieved with established faith groups. Whether the state should support any faith based institutions remains, though, a more controversial question.

Claire Dwyer is a Senior Lecturer in social and cultural geography at University College London where she is Co-Director of the Migration Research Unit. She has undertaken research on Muslim identities in Britain, British South Asian diaspora commodity cultures and new suburban religious landscapes in Britain and Canada. Her publications include Transnational Spaces (co-edited with Peter Jackson and Phillip Crang, Routledge, 2004) and New Geographies of Race and Racism (co-edited with Caroline Bressey, Ashgate, 2008).


[1] Peter Walker, ‘Tony Blair Sons’ Former School Ordered to Change Admission Policy’, The Guardian, 29 August 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/aug/29/tony-blair-london-oratory-school-admissions.

[2] Runnymede Trust, Right to Divide? Faith schools and Community Cohesion (London: The Runnymede Trust, 2008).

[3] Claire Dwyer and Violetta Parutis, ‘“Faith in the System?” State-funded Faith Schools in England and the Contested Parameters of Community Cohesion’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38, no. 2 (2013): 267–284.

[4] Claire Dwyer and Varun Uberoi, ‘British Muslims and Community Cohesion Debates’, in Muslim Spaces of Hope: Geographies of Possibility in Britain and the West, ed. Richard Phillips (London: Zed Books, 2009), 201–221.

The image of Islamic Tarbiyah Preparatory School is included courtesy of Betty Longbottom and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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