Church schools are taking in far fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than other schools and more than their share of bright pupils, according to the most detailed research published on admissions.
The study, which covered all primary and secondary schools in England, revealed that voluntary-aided schools - mainly run by churches - were taking in fewer children entitled to free meals than other schools in their neighbourhoods. In addition, church secondary schools admit a far higher proportion of children who have done well in their 11-year-old national curriculum tests than the percentage in the communities they serve.
The research, covering every state school in England and carried out by the widely respected National Foundation for Educational Research, calls for an investigation to determine whether they are "overtly or covertly" selecting their pupils.
However, Tony Blair's flagship academies are given a clean bill of health - with researchers saying they are taking in far more than their share of poorer students and those who are struggling to master the three Rs.
This finding will give ministers ammunition with which to rebut claims from rebel Labour MPs that they are leading to a two-tier system of education when the Government's controversial school reforms return to the Commons next month.
The NFER research mirrors the findings of an earlier report by the education think tank, Iris, which only looked into primary schools - but found that voluntary-aided schools were using "devious" means such as ascertaining parents' affluence to determine admissions.
The NFER says there can only be two reasons for its findings: either parents with a religious faith have more intelligent children and are richer than the rest of the community or the voluntary aided schools are indulging in forms of selection.
"Even by compensating for the wider geographical area that such schools may serve, it does not explain the reason for the proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals admitted to voluntary-aided schools. Further research could investigate whether there are lower numbers of children with a particular religious affiliation within the group eligible for free school meals or whether some of these schools are overtly or covertly selecting out children with particular background characteristics."
The figures showed that - whereas 19 per cent of all pupils living in postcodes served by voluntary aided primary schools were entitled to free school meals - only 14 per cent of their pupils were. The figures were the same for secondary schools.
By contrast, in academies - the privately-sponsored independently-run inner city schools being set up by Mr Blair - 40 per cent of pupils were on free school meals compared to 31 per cent in the districts they covered.
Tamsin Chamberlain, who conducted the research for the NFER, said: "Further research is needed to provide the reasons for those differences - for example why some community and voluntary-aided schools appear to admit a lower proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than might be expected."Reuse content