Sorting sheep from goats is not too tricky, but how do you sort sheep from other sheep? In his recent annual report, chief schools adjudicator Ian Craig was critical of the admissions criteria used by some faith schools to distinguish between different kinds of church-goer, pointing out that privileging parents who run study groups or help to arrange the church flowers is likely to disadvantage families where both parents work.
No faith school can turn away pupils if it has spare places. But when a school of "religious character" is oversubscribed, it can give priority "to children who are members of, or who practise, their faith". So schools are perfectly within their rights to demand proof of baptism or request a reference from a minister - though they should ensure it contains no information about a parent's occupation, financial situation or educational background.
So far, that seems clear enough - and in many cases, proof of church attendance is all that is necessary. "It's only in heavily over-subscribed schools that there may be a need to make further distinctions," says Reverend Jan Ainsworth, general secretary of the National Society for Promoting Religious Education. "That is when it can get complicated." For example, at Twyford CofE High School in Ealing, west London, an elaborate points formula rewards length and frequency of attendance at church, and gives extra points to children whose parents are involved in bell-ringing, flower-arranging or editing the parish magazine.
Reverend Ainsworth admits she "isn't a fan" of this kind of points system; nor, judging by his recent comments, is the chief schools adjudicator. But there is nothing in the admissions code that expressly prohibits schools from asking for information about parents' wider church involvement. On the other hand, the code requires all admissions criteria to be "fair" and an adjudicator can still rule against any policy that they deem "unfair".
"What is fair or unfair is often linked to local context," is the view of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. As an example, schools sometimes give preference to children baptised within six months of being born, but in some Eastern European countries it is not unusual to be baptised at a year old. So in an area with many immigrants, a six-month baptism rule would probably be considered unfair, while in another area it might not be.
To muddy the waters further, Roman Catholic schools - which make up nearly two-thirds of all UK faith schools - are required to follow the policies laid down by their diocese. Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Kensington, west London, was reported to the adjudicator by its own diocese for requesting information about parents' church activities when the policy of the diocese was not to do so. Many of the diocese's objections were upheld, although the fact that the adjudicator's report ran to 12,000 words shows the complexity of the legal issues.
As well as "fairness", the other over-arching precept of the code is the need for "clarity". Schools can fall down here in two ways: the first is by using vague phrases such as "regular attendance" without explaining how it is measured; the other is by having a confusing points system.
"Schools can get in a mess because their policies are over-complicated," says lawyer Ian Jones, who specialises in admissions appeals. "The clearer the rules, the less likely it is parents will be disadvantaged."
- Must not disadvantage particular ethnic or social groups.
- Should be easy to understand, with any additional forms made easily obtainable.
- Must be verifiable and objective.
- Should follow guidance laid down by the diocese, or by the faith's national governing body, where such guidance exists.
- Should be reviewed every year.