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When church once a month is not enough

Performance tables have added a disturbing dimension to parents' quest for a secondary. Susannah Kirkman reports

Parents find the admissions criteria for many church schools particularly confusing, says the Advisory Centre for Education. Many insist on evidence of active parental involvement in a local church. The difficulty for parents is that the level of Christian commitment required can vary from year to year, depending on the demand for places.

"One year you may only have to go to church once a week to be certain of a place. In an over-subscribed year that might be twice a week," explained Alan Murphy, who is head of St Edward's School, a joint Roman CatholicChurch of England comprehensive school in Poole, Dorset, achieving GCSE results well above the national average.

This year there were more than 200 church-attending applicants for 135 places. As a result, the school was not able to accept several families of practising Christians, leaving Mr Murphy to try and pick up the pieces.

"You see the tears and upset in parents' eyes when they are casualties of the system, and you share their disappointment," he said. "Our mission as a joint church school is primarily to serve local church communities who are members of Churches Together, formerly the British Council of Churches. But we don't want to be a ghetto; we would like to admit families who uphold our values but who perhaps don't attend the right church, or even any church at all. It is a tragedy when we are not able to accept a child whose mother is terminally ill, simply because they moved to a different church."

Mr Murphy insists that such cases are not the school's fault. Any criteria, however perfect, are going to create "losers" if the school is over-subscribed. Mr Murphy is aware that exaggerated claims can be made. "One parish priest described it as 'a rush of religion to the head' at the time of the admissions procedures," he said. "It is a shame if a genuine family who've been involved for many years but only attend church once a month lose a place as a result. " Mr Murphy says there will always be injustice unless the Government proves its commitment to parental choice by allowing popular schools to expand. St Edward's is hoping to allow an extra 30 pupils in each year, but this will only be possible if it can justify the "basic need" of more places for a rising local population.

The Government's plans to increase selection will make matters worse, Mr Murphy says, because it is giving the schools a greater choice of pupils, not the parents a wider choice of schools.

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