Faith schools, a law unto themselves

Richard Garner
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:10

The vast majority of faith schools are breaking the law when admitting pupils, according to Government research published yesterday. The study shows that some seek money from parents and fail to give priority to children in care.

A survey of 106 voluntary-aided schools by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) revealed that 96 are in breach of a new statutory code on admissions. Of those, 87 are faith schools.

Six were found to be asking parents for voluntary financial contributions before admitting their children. At Beis Yaakov Jewish primary school in Barnet, north London, parents were asked to contribute £895 per term.

However, the biggest single breach of the new statutory code involved the admission of children in care. A total of 58 schools were found to be refusing to give them priority in admissions, as demanded by law. In addition, 13 did not admit special-needs children at all. One school, Hasmonean primary – also in Barnet – was found to have breached the statutory code in 10 different ways.

Yesterday's research comes after an earlier report from the education think-tank Iris, which revealed that voluntary-aided faith schools were taking fewer children on free school meals than neighbouring schools in similar circumstances.

One senior local authority official said of the faith schools' flouting of the new statutory code: "They are doing it to get richer kids and better results – it is as simple as that."

While conducting the research, officials from the DCSF surveyed schools in three authorities – Barnet, Manchester and Northamptonshire – which they considered representative of the country as a whole. There were no breaches of the law in schools run by local authorities, or at the Government's flagship academies.

However, flouting the law was widespread in faith schools.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said: "If just one school is asking for a contribution before admitting a child, that means they are asking between 300 and 1,500 parents.

"In the schools we are talking about, thousands and thousands of parents are being asked to make a contribution before their child is admitted. That is just wrong. It may be said to be voluntary but in the parents' minds it is not. We know this is an issue that has arisen in other parts of the country. I think these authorities are representative of what is going on around the country."

As a result, the Government is drafting emergency legislation – to be included in a schools Bill going through Parliament – to crack down on breaches of the code. In future, Philip Hunter, the schools adjudicator – the ombudsman for parents on school admissions – will be given new powers to investigate any breach of the admissions code that comes to his notice, without having to wait for an official complaint. In addition, every local authority will have to make an annual report outlining whether the admissions procedures in schools in their area have been fair. This will be sent to the schools adjudicator.

Mr Balls said that faith bodies – including the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish Board of Deputies – had expressed their desire to work with ministers to eradicate breaches of the code.

"We did not pick these three authorities out of the air," Mr Balls said. "They were chosen because they represented a London authority, a metropolitan authority and a shire county. We have never had reason to believe that these authorities are out of line with others around the country."

Of the six schools asking for voluntary contributions, five were Jewish schools in Barnet. The sixth was a Church of England primary school. However, refusing to comply with the law on giving priority to admitting children in care was evenly spread between the three authorities.

"It is quite clear this is not just happening in a handful of schools," added Mr Balls. "Our objective in highlighting these schools is that we have full compliance with the code next year. If we say there should be a fair set of rules governing admissions, then that should be a fair set of rules for all parents.

"No parent should ever have to make a financial commitment to the school, or sign a commitment as part of the admissions process. It is fair enough to ask for contributions after a child has been admitted, but not before."

The investigation also highlighted other breaches of the code, such as the practice of interviewing parents and asking about their marital status or occupations, and only allowing in children of the school's faith.

Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service, said there had been "no deliberate attempt to circumvent the code, but there may have been errors of interpretation".

"The CES remains confident that the admissions arrangements of the vast majority of Catholic schools are sound, fully meeting all statutory requirements," she said.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, said: "It is unacceptable for any school to be breaking the admissions code and thousands of parents will be rightly enraged by some of the tactics employed by a minority of them."

But Michael Gove, the Conservative schools spokesman, accused ministers of using the report as a smokescreen to distract attention from the lack of choice parents have in the state sector.

"Ed Balls knows that many faith, and other, schools ask parents if they would like to make purely voluntary contributions," he added. "He also knows Jewish faith schools have to secure additional funding to guarantee the physical safety of their children.

"But he put these schools in the dock simply in order to distract attention from the fact that 100,000 parents were not getting their first choice of school thanks to his policies."

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