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Faith schools take fewer difficult pupils

New special needs figures re-ignite charges that church schools covertly select the best students. Graeme Paton reports

Faith secondary schools take significantly fewer pupils with emotional, behavioural and physical difficulties than other state schools, official figures reveal.

The Department for Education and Skills statistics show 17.1 per cent of children at non-religious secondaries this year have special needs compared to 14.1 per cent at faith secondaries. They also show that 18.9 per cent of those at secular primaries have special needs compared to 16 per cent at faith-based primaries.

Earlier this year The TES revealed that Anglican and Catholic schools take fewer children from deprived backgrounds. The latest statistics will reinforce the view of critics that some faith schools out-perform their secular neighbours by covertly selecting the brightest pupils.

This summer's GCSE results showed that 46 of the 100 top-rated comprehensives were faith schools. But the figures reveal that non-faith secondaries take almost a fifth more children with special needs, which include autism, ADHD, emotional and physical disabilities.

Birmingham Labour MP Lynne Jones, who requested the figures, said: "Faith schools take less than their share of deprived children and more than their share of children of more ambitious parents, a point the Government should be well aware of.

"Ofsted said when the Government was expanding faith schools in 2001 that 'selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well-behaved children from stable backgrounds'."

Such "covert selection" helped explain faith schools' apparent success, she said.

And Marilyn Mason, education officer for the British Humanist Association, said: "These figures add to the evidence that the apparently good results of faith schools are based more on selection than on faith."

But Canon John Hall, the Church of England's chief education officer, said:

"It would be outrageous to make such broad conclusions. The reality is that you can go to hundreds of church primaries and secondaries doing fantastic work with children who are deprived and have special needs." He pointed out the C of E was also opening academies in deprived areas.

The DfES says the number of children with special needs in faith schools has fallen slightly over the past three years, perhaps reflecting increasing competition for places at the most popular.

Faith-based primaries have a sixth fewer pupils with special needs than others although again the gulf has widened over the last three years (see box) Figures released by the C of E this summer showed its primaries admit up to a third fewer children from poor backgrounds than other schools. The number of pupils in Anglican primaries on free meals is around 11 per cent compared to an average of 17 per cent. Catholic schools were in line with other schools but state-funded Muslim schools admit twice as many deprived pupils.

The recent education white paper will let churches establish trusts to oversee schools in place of local councils. The Anglican church estimates it will gain control of an extra 200 schools in the next few years.


Another voice 26

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