Nearly all faith schools 'abuse' admissions system, British Humanist Association claims

Eleanor Busby

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Faith schools systematically cheat the admissions system, a new report claims.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) report says all but one of the secondary faith schools investigated (69 out of 70) failed to comply with the School Admissions Code.

The report, An Unholy Mess, produced on behalf of the Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC), lists a series of violations of the admission arrangements at religiously selective state schools, including a lack of clarity over the frequency and duration of religious worship required.

A number of schools investigated required practical or financial support for associated organisations – through voluntary activities such as flower arranging and singing in choirs at churches or, in the case of two Jewish schools, paying to become a member of a synagogue.

Many schools failed to sufficiently prioritise looked-after and formerly looked-after children, and the majority asked for information from parents that they did not need.

From the sample of 70 religiously selective secondary schools, the BHA and FAC lodged objections to 39 with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA). More than 1,300 breaches of the code were identified during the investigation.

Given that 1.2 million school places in England are subject to religious selection criteria, the number of children who are unfairly losing out on places is significant, the report concludes.

The BHA and FAC are calling for reform of the system, including revision of the code in a number of areas and the establishment of an independent monitoring service to enforce better compliance.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the BHA, said the system of religious selection should be abandoned altogether.

“Over a million state school places in England are subject to religious selection and it’s well known that religious schools have been abusing the admissions system for some time," he said. "Even so, no one can have imagined the problem was as widespread as this report shows.

“Of course, it’s a scandal to begin with that these schools are able by law to discriminate against children on the grounds of their parents’ religious beliefs, but the fact that they’re seeking to find further ways to turn children away is disgraceful. Religious selection by state schools is the archaic practice that allows these abuses and must be brought to an end.”

But Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service, hit back, saying: “School admissions are extremely complex and are accompanied by hundreds of pages of legal framework, so the most likely causes of breaches in the code are unintended admin errors.

“The BHA ‘research’ only takes into account a small cross-section of schools and fails to represent the national picture outlined by the OSA in its most recent report. 

“We expect all Catholic schools to comply with the code and local dioceses provide support for schools to do so. It is because of our admissions system that Catholic schools are the most ethnically diverse in England and contain higher than the national average of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Reverend Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s chief education officer, said: “We would strongly refute any suggestion that our schools have a near universal noncompliance with the code. The OSA annual report tells a very different story to this over-exaggerated report, which equates small administrative errors or minuscule technicalities with major systemic failure. If schools were able to focus more time on getting on running their schools, rather than responding to these sorts of campaigns, children would be better served.

“The majority of Church of England schools do not prioritise their places on the basis of church attendance, and most of those that do still make places available for children in the school’s immediate community. Our secondary schools have an average of 10 per cent selection by religious criteria – this is based on church attendance only. We also have as many pupils on free school meals as the national average, some much higher."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We want every child to have access to the best education possible, and where there is evidence a school does not have fair and transparent admissions arrangements, swift action will be taken.

"We will consider the findings of BHA's report carefully. All of the objections they have listed have now been resolved."

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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