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U-turn on faith schools

Ministers give churches more powers on admissions to give priority to pupils of faith

Ministers have given more ground to churches over admissions, allowing them to veto plans of any new faith school to take pupils of different or no religion.

The move follows the Govern-ment's sudden and embarrassing ditching of its plan to force new faith schools to take up to a quarter of their admissions from outside their religion, in the face of fierce Catholic resistance.

Now The TES has learned that after the uproar over October's "fastest U-turn in British political history" died down, the Government went further by giving religious authorities the power to block voluntary proposals from their schools to broaden intakes.

In a letter explaining the proposed addition to the new school admissions code, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, wrote: "The governing body of a new foundation or voluntary aided school with a religious character must obtain the consent of the relevant faith body before setting admissions arrangements that give priority to children not of the faith."

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "This will frustrate unilateral attempts by individual faith schools to make their admissions more comprehensive. The churches want to give the impression they are open and inclusive but these measures will do the exact opposite."

The Catholic education service said it welcomed the changes, which would apply to any faith school opening from last month.

Sarah Billington, the service's legal adviser, said it had not asked for them: they had come from the Government. However, it was right that diocesan authorities should have a say if schools wanted to radically alter admissions arrangements.

Responding to the consultation on the code, which closed last week, the Secular Society said the change "unreasonably overrides the autonomy of governors to act in what they believe to be the best interests of the school". It argued that admitting according to religion is "statistically unsustainable" when about a third of schools are designated as having religious character but no more than 4 per cent of parents attend church.

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