Cleaning their local church will no longer be enough to help parents get their child into one of the country's most prestigious Catholic schools - but flower arranging might still do the trick, TES has learned.
After an official ruling, the London Oratory School - recently chosen by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg for one of his sons - has been forced to remove "cleaning" and "maintenance of church property" from its admissions policy as examples of how parents can prove their religious adherence.
The move came after the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) ruled that allowing parents to bolster their applications through serving their local church went against the School Admissions Code.
But other examples highlighted by the OSA as areas of concern have remained in the Oratory's admissions policy, such as assisting in church services through flower arranging, bible reading or playing a musical instrument, or helping with good works in the parish.
Under the admissions code, schools are permitted to use oversubscription criteria that favour students whose families regularly attend Mass, who have been baptised in the Catholic Church or who have received communion. But the 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".
The case of the Oratory, according to secular campaigners, is a prime example of the confusing rules that govern admissions to faith schools.
The OSA said that the Oratory's admissions policy had been at odds with advice from the Diocese of Westminster, which states that "service to the church" is "not an appropriate measure of Catholic practice" as it disadvantages parents who fulfil their religious obligations in other ways. However, the adjudicator does not carry out follow-up checks to ensure that its rulings have been taken into consideration.
Oratory headteacher David McFadden said the school had chosen to retain references to activities such as flower arranging and playing music because they "have specific liturgical significance in the Catholic Church and make a direct contribution to worship". Cleaning, he said in a statement, "is not so easily seen as linked to the practice of faith and spiritual life of the Church" and was therefore removed.
Mr McFadden said the adjudicator was concerned that cleaning and maintenance "may have been regarded as having a practical and therefore monetary value", which was prohibited under the admissions code.
Secularists argue that allowing religious schools to "cherry-pick" students leads to an over-concentration of children from better-off families, who are prepared to play the system. Richy Thompson, campaigns officer for faith schools and education at the British Humanist Association, said: "It cannot possibly be right that a parent can get preferential treatment in getting their child into a state school by doing some flower arranging."
Mr Thompson complained that the Oratory was "an extreme example of the well-known fact that social selection follows religious selection". He said that just 6.4 per cent of students at the Oratory were receiving free school meals, compared with around 50 per cent in some non-faith schools in the same area.
In his ruling, adjudicator Andrew Baxter also criticised the Oratory for asking students applying to its sixth form to take an entrance test. While the school claimed this was "fairer to all candidates" than relying on predicted GCSE grades, the adjudicator found it was in breach of the code. The school has since removed references to the test from its 2014 admissions policy.
A spokesperson for the OSA said: "We apply the School Admissions Code. Once our decision has been made it is legally binding. We do not comment or carry out checks on revised admission arrangements."
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and former prime minister Tony Blair were both criticised for choosing the London Oratory School for their children because it was not their local comprehensive.
The former grammar school has been rated "outstanding" by Ofsted and 92 per cent of students achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths.
This year's Good Schools Guide claims that admissions are "simpler than hitherto, but heart-sinking for anyone other than an assiduously practising Roman Catholic family with lots of community involvement". It says the school receives 800 applications for 160 places.