CHURCH schools are flouting the rules on admissions by using unfair criteria to select pupils, research has revealed.
An analysis of the admissions policies of nearly 400 secondaries by the London School of Economics shows that many are disregarding a Government code practice. The criteria for some religious schools are almost impossible for even the most devout family to meet.
Others are accused of contravening legislation by unfairly using the performance of siblings for accepting or rejecting pupils, or of having vague policies that allow the school to select the pupils it wants.
The findings will be seized upon by MPs, who last week failed to amend the education Bill to force religious schools to take at least a quarter of pupils from other faiths or none.
One Catholic secondary demands that would-be pupils, and their parents, must have attended Mass every week since the child started primary school. The same school also requires a statement from parents saying they have not also applied to a non-Catholic secondary, the unpublished study by Dr Anne West and Audrey Hind of 393 schools in London found.
Other church schools' policies were so unclear as to give them leeway in selecting pupils. One lists "compassionate factors", another gives credit for "hobbies and leisure activities".
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis, who jointly launched the amendment, said it was "unacceptable" for a school to insist on Mass every weekend.
The study says legislation launched in 1998 which introduced school adjudicators to tackle admissions disputes and a new code of practice, has had some impact. But many schools, both religious and non-religious, are not keeping to the code, and little is being done about it.
Voluntary-aided (church) and foundation schools were much less likely to have special educational needs in their lists of admissions criteria than community schools, added the report.
They were also more than six times more likely to select by either ability or aptitude than community schools.
Dr West, who presented the paper to a National Union of TeachersCampaign for State Education conference, said: "There are clear opportunities for schools to 'select in' and 'select out' pupils.
"Given the link between social background, prior attainment and later examination performance, these practices enable some such schools to obtain higher league table positions than others."
Dr West said that schools adjudicators, who currently have powers to direct changes to admissions policies only if complaints are made, should have powers to intervene pro-actively.
Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service, said the church had never sought to deny that its popular schools should prioritise Catholic pupils in their admissions policies.
But she added that policies should not be so vague as to allow schools to effectively select pupils for other reasons. "I would be adamantly against anything that was capable even inadvertently, of resulting in social selection," she said.
Oona Stannard profile, 17 Opinion, 21