Before the 1870 Education Act introduced state-funded education, church schools provided the only hope of a decent schooling for poorer children. But the study by the Department for Children, Schools and Families shows that faith schools have become so popular that they can now cherry-pick pupils.
The result is that they are accepting fewer children who receive free school meals than neighbouring, non-religious schools in similar circumstances. As one education expert has suggested, there can only be one reason for that – to achieve better exam results in an age when schools are measured by their place in league tables.
Founders of the church schools movement would be astonished that, instead of encouraging the poor, schools are turning away disadvantaged pupils in favour of supposedly brighter, middle-class children.
There are at least 16 ways that faith schools flout the new statutory code on admissions – but the main one is interviewing parents to ask about their marital status and occupations. A popular question is: "Do you have a place for independent study at home?" – with the inference being: "Do you live in a council home or a large house?"
Some schools ask for voluntary contributions from parents before it has been decided whether their offspring have won a place. Parents may feel a refusal would jeopardise their chances of admission.
Yesterday, the Catholic Education Service said it believed most of its schools were obeying the new admissions code and those that were not were doing so in error.
There is some excuse over the refusal to give priority to children in care, as this became a legal requirement only in the past year. However, the research suggests that faith schools have not been taking their fair share of disadvantaged children – regardless of whether they are committed to meeting the demands of the new legislation.
The positive thing to emerge from yesterday's report is that the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England and the Jewish community have agreed to work with the Government to secure compliance with the code next year.
However, voluntary-aided (VA) schools – most of which are faith-based – retain authority over their intakes. Many in the state sector are convinced it will be impossible to ensure compliance by VA schools until they have independent observers sitting on their admissions panels.