Faith schools 'are failing to comply with pupil admissions rules'

Study finds the vast majority of schools ask parents too instrusive questions about their church backgrounds

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The Independent Online

The vast majority of state faith schools are failing to comply with rules governing pupil admissions, according to a major study.

Most are in breach of the law by asking parents too intrusive questions about their church backgrounds or failing to give priority to children in care, says the report, An Unholy Mess, by the British Humanist Association.

Some, however, may be inadvertently in breach of the rules because governors do not understand them, it adds.

The report follows objections launched by the BHA and the pressure group, the Fair admissions Campaign, to the admissions arrangements of 44 faith schools in different parts of the country.

Almost 90 per cent of the schools were found to be asking parents for information they did not need, it is claimed.

The admissions code states that schools are not allowed to require parents to financially or practically support any organisation connected to the church ion question. They must also give priority to looked after children in care.

However, the report concluded:  “Almost 90 per cent of schools were found to be asking for information from parents that they did not need.”

These included “asking for details of religious observance in a different or more detailed way than was required” for the admissions code.

“Some schools asked for parents’ birth certificates, for applicants country of origin, whether they were UK nationals , whether the spoke English as an additional language and if they had any medical issues,” it added.

“It said there were “widespread issues with clarity, fairness and objectivity” with 85 per cent of schools failing to publish their admissions criteria in time for appeals into the refusal of a school place.

The issue of admissions to faith schools has been a source of controversy for years with many parents - aware they might be quizzed on church attendance - feigning allegiance to a particular church and turning up regularly on Sundays before governors decided on whether to admit their child.

However, the report asserts that those questions are out of order - and calls on the Government to move towards banning all faith schools from selecting pupils on faith grounds.

It also calls for the admissions code to be reviewed - and the setting up of an independent monitoring body to check the rules are being adhered to.

“When a system makes criminals out of schools, liars out of parents and, in the midst of it all, a lot of children get left behind, it is time for reform,” said Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association.

“It is clearly the case ...  that none of the problems that we have identified can be entirely solved unless religious selection is abandoned altogether.”

Attempts to curb selection by faith were introduced by former Education Secretary Michael Gove - who insisted that free schools should only be able to admit 50 per cent of their pupils by faith.

Research commissioned by the BHA two years ago revealed that overall - 72 per cent of places at faith schools were determined by faith.

Professor Ted Cantle, author of a government review of community cohesion following the race riots in northern cities in 2001, said of the report: “We recommended that all schools should consider ways in which they might ensure that their intake is representative of the range of cultures and ethnicity in their local communities.

“School admissions policies are letting down parents, carers and children  ...  It is time for change.”

Dr Jonathan Romain, chairman of Accord - which campaigns for equal access to faith schools, said; "At last we have authoritative confirmation that the countless anecdotes about religious discrimination by faith schools are based on fact.

"It means that they can no longer be dismissed and the systematic malpractices have to be confronted.

"How sad that faith and discrimination seem to be firm  friends when they should be enemies."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education added; "We want every child to have access to the best school possible and where there is evidence a school does not have fair and transparent admissions arrangements swift action will be taken. 

"We will consider the findings of the BHA's report carefully."

Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service, added; "School admissions are extremely complex and are accompanied by hundreds of pages of legal framework so the most likely causes of breaches are unintended administrative errors. "

He said the BHA's report had only covered "a small cross section of faith schools" and did not tally with the most recent report of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator - which oversees admissions.

He added that Roman Catholic schools were "the most ethnically diverse in England" and contained higher than the national average of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Reverend Nigel Genders, the Church of England's chief education officer, said: "We would strongly refute any suggestion that our schools have a near universal non-compliance under the Code."

He described the BHA report as "over-exaggerated", adding- "The majority of C of E schools do not prioritise their places on the basis of church attebdances and most of those that do still make places available for children in the schools' immediate community."