The London Oratory School is renowned for being one of the most sought after in the capital, with even former a prime minister beating a path to its door. Tony Blair was so keen to send his children to the Catholic secondary that he was prepared to put up with being pilloried by the press for snubbing his local comprehensive. The current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has also expressed an interest in sending his son to the London Oratory.
The academy, which does not admit girls until the sixth form, is rated outstanding by Ofsted and receives more than six applications for every place it offers. But it has this week found itself on the end of some stinging criticism for unfairly giving priority to applications from parents who are involved in flower arranging, Bible readings and singing in the church choir.
Other approved activities listed on the school's website as meeting its criteria for "service in any Catholic parish or in the wider Catholic church" include visiting the "sick, housebound or disadvantaged" and carrying out "housekeeping and maintenance of church property".
Schools adjudicator Andrew Baxter has ruled that giving priority to children whose parents have served the church is not allowed. While the school is permitted to use oversubscription criteria favouring pupils whose families regularly attend Mass, have been baptised in the Catholic church or received communion, the admissions code bans schools from assessing applications "on the basis of any practical or financial support parents may give to the school or any associated organisation, including any religious authority".
Mr Baxter's ruling also revealed that the school's admissions policy was at odds with advice from the Diocese of Westminster. "The representatives of the diocese ... consider that, while such a criterion may demonstrate that certain parents and children are conscientiously practising their Catholic faith, it is not an appropriate measure of Catholic practice as it disadvantages other equally conscientious Catholic families who choose to fulfil their obligations in other ways," he wrote.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said the London Oratory's admissions policy was "really unfair". "It's outrageous - and, I suspect, illegal - for parents' actual religious activities to be imposed, particularly if this represents an imposition on parents' resources and time," he added.
The school's policies were scrutinised by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator after two parties made complaints. In his determination, Mr Baxter wrote: "It is clear the school has invested significant professional energy in developing admission arrangements that support its mission. In so doing it seems that it may not have paid sufficient attention to the detailed requirements of the latest edition of the code."
The London Oratory was also ticked off for asking students applying for a place in its sixth form to take an entrance test. While the school told Mr Baxter this was "fairer to all candidates" than relying on predicted GCSE grades, the adjudicator found this was in breach of the code. The school has indicated that it plans to withdraw the test.
Mr Baxter added that the London Oratory's guidance was insufficiently clear, adding: "I must assume that applicants and their parents would be at least as confused and unclear as I have been."
The adjudicator's office has ordered the school to amend its policies to comply with the code. When TES went to print, they had still not been amended on its website. The school also declined to comment on the adjudicator's decision.
The Blairs' choice
Former prime minister Tony Blair on the London Oratory:
"When I had chosen to send my own children to the Oratory - a Catholic school that had been grant-maintained - it was a difficult enough moment... But I was determined that I couldn't let the kids down. Their education was important. They had enough to put up with as it was. To send them to a bad or average state school, when under the then rules governing admissions to Catholic schools we could have sent them to a good one, would be really quite wickedly irresponsible."
From A Journey by Tony Blair.