An admission appeals panel for a heavily oversubscribed Muslim girls' school has been damned as the worst ever by an official investigation.
The panel, chaired by a 20-year-old imam and law student with no relevant experience, was established to consider appeals for places at the high-attaining Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School in Blackburn.
But the panel kept no proper notes, made up new admissions criteria and awarded places to 30 children despite the school making clear it was full, a report by the local government ombudsman found.
"The way the panel conducted its decision-making and the decisions that it made probably amounted to the worst single instance of multiple maladministration in a school admission appeal investigated by the ombudsman's office," its report said.
The findings come as the chief schools adjudicator published his annual report, warning that some Christian faith schools are using unfair admissions procedures that favour white middle-class families (see box).
Tauheedul was not responsible for the failures of the appeals panel because it had appointed Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council to act on its behalf, ombudsman Anne Seex said. It had, however, been criticised before for admission arrangements that favoured parents who were members of mosques that required a financial contribution.
The school is heavily oversubscribed, receiving 280 applications in 2009 for 60 places. The youngest pupils were taught in attic rooms where the sloping roof made it impossible for teachers to reach each desk.
As previously reported in The TES, it is also in talks with the local authority about the possibility of taking over a Catholic primary school in the town - the first such switch of its kind.
The council and the appeals panel were both heavily criticised for a series of errors. The council appointed a clerk from a temp agency with no relevant background and the appeals panel chose as its chairman a 20-year-old imam and member of the Lancashire Council of Mosques who also had no experience of school admission appeals.
The panel ignored the fact that the school was full and offered places to all children whose parents were members of one of four mosques.
"The nature and extent of the maladministration I found is extraordinary," Ms Seex said.
When the flaws came to light, the council had to appoint a new panel to review the appeals, with just three proving successful.
A joint statement from the council and the school apologised for the mistakes and said they had not been repeated. "Lessons were learnt and the council and school acted promptly to make the improvements recommended by the local government ombudsman," it said.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: "Admission rules have to be enforced across the board and without regard to religion. It is quite clear from the cases that keep emerging that there is widespread abuse to admissions to faith schools."
ADMISSIONS CODE TOO COMPLEX?
England's chief schools adjudicator has warned the Government against slimming down the school admissions code amid fears it would be left weakened. Amended last year, it contains legal requirements that schools must follow, as well as best practice guidance.
Ian Craig admitted the code could be simplified, but said removing the guidance could lead to "throwing the baby out with the bath water". Education Secretary Michael Gove said he would press ahead with plans to make admissions "simpler and fairer".