One of the things that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around since we’ve been in the UK is the separation of church and state…or the lack thereof. I never realized how ingrained this founding American principle is in me…and how it’s not even a thing in the UK, which is one of the reasons our ancestors left in the first place.

The largest and most significant place that I have felt this has been in the British school system. Granted, our son is still in nursery school and will not actually be in that system before we move on to our next post. But I’ve attended several meetings concerning early childhood education, and it blows my mind.

First let’s get the vocabulary straight. Technically a “public” school in the UK is what we would consider a “private” school where the family pays a large sum annually for the child’s education. And a large portion of American private schools are religious. What we could normally call a “public” school, the Brits call a “state” school. But your state school is by no means free of religious bias. As a matter of fact, the opposite is quite true.

A great many of Britain’s state schools are considered “faith” schools…predominantly Roman Catholic or Church of England but also Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, etc. According to an October 2013 article in The Independent, a full third of publically-funded state schools are religious.

Diplomats often come up against the challenge of residency. But for some of the faith schools, you have to have documented PROOF that you have been attending a particular church every week for however long for your child to be allowed to attend, which can also lead to discrimination in said publically-funded school.

A colleague summed it up very well in a personal email on the topic:

As you know, the cost of a year of private school at age four in London can run well over $15,000 (and over $30,000 for an American- or international-curriculum school).  This is because pre-K, which is called “reception,” is the first year of a child’s full-time primary education in the United Kingdom.  “Pre-school” as we know it is not routinely available in London.

British state-funded pre-K (reception) places are only available to those who are resident by January 14th of the preceding school year, making this option less viable for transient diplomatic families.  Even if you occupy your permanent residence in time to apply for a reception place for your child, there is no guarantee that a London state school spot will be made available anywhere in the vicinity of either your home or your workplace.  There is a critical shortage of state-funded reception slots in London, as regularly reported in the news media.  London state schools in the borough of Westminster, […] where the Embassy is located, are routinely over-subscribed.

Additionally, according to the Westminster Council website the vast majority (26 out of 34) Westminster state-funded primary schools are religious schools – either Church of England (19) or Catholic (7).  These are also known as voluntary-aided schools.  Most priests and Anglican ministers require a family to show proof of religious practice for two years prior to application for a reception spot at a voluntary-aided school.   Admission to these state-funded schools is controlled by the school’s own board of governors, often composed of members of the congregation and religious leaders.  Children who are not from regularly practicing religiously observant families as certified in writing by a priest or a minister therefore stand very little chance of gaining admission to the majority of state-funded primary schools in Westminster.

And the British taxpayers are none too happy about it either.