Religiously selective schools criticised by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner

A new report has criticised religiously selective faith schools over their complex admissions rules.

A new report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) has criticised religiously selective faith schools over their complex admissions rules, and has called on the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) to clarify which admissions procedures are allowed under the law.

The report, entitled ‘It might be best if you looked elsewhere’: An investigation into the schools admission process, looks at how some primary and secondary schools manipulate the admissions system to take on pupils likely to get higher exam results (and thus boost the school’s position in the league tables), and how this can have a detrimental effect on pupils from families with low incomes.

Some faith schools have been caught out on this issue, over the practice of giving priority to parents who carry out work in a place of worship. This favours pupils from wealthy backgrounds, whose parents are often better placed to carry out this kind of work.

The Fair Admissions Campaign, a coalition of secular and religious groups which campaigns against religious discrimination in admissions to state-funded schools, has welcomed the OCC report. They have previously highlighted how religious selection in school admissions leads to socio-economic segregation within the education system.

Religious discrimination in school admissions has led to the increasingly widespread practice of parents attending religious services just to ensure that their child can get a place at the local faith school, even if they do not actually believe in the faith in question. The Church of England’s own research has shown that many parents only attend church services to get their children into oversubscribed church schools.

One prominent example of an unfair admissions system which has come to public attention is that which operated at the London Oratory School, the state-funded Catholic secondary in west London where Tony Blair and Nick Clegg chose to send their children. Until recently, parents wishing to get their children into the school were given extra points for activities carried out in church, such as flower-arranging.

The OCC report recommends that the Department for Education and the OSA should issue clarification on the distinction between “criteria based on religious observance, which are lawful, and those based on non-religious service, which are not”.

Several other aspects of school admission policies are criticised in the report, which apply to both faith and non-faith schools.

For example, giving priority to children attending nurseries, which can put poor families at a disadvantage when applying for school places (as some nursery provision has to be paid for). Another factor which can discourage poorer families from applying for school places are uniform costs, which can be as much as £300 per child.

The report also mentions the difficulties faced by parents of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). The report states that “there are parents, especially those of children with SEN, who have been put off from applying to a school for a place for their child as a result of the negative messages they have received directly from school staff”.

The report recommends that school admissions authorities should assess whether their admissions policies meet with their duties under the Public Sector Equality Duty. This was introduced by the 2010 Equality Act, and obliges public authorities to eliminate unlawful discrimination and promote equality of opportunity.

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