Rules discriminate against poor and immigrant children, says chief schools adjudicator
Faith schools' admissions rules are discriminating against poor and immigrant children to favour those from the middle classes, the chief schools adjudicator warned today.
Ian Craig, head of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA), which hears parents' complaints against schools, said some faith schools were unconsciously skewing their intakes towards the rich.
Faith schools are allowed to give a higher priority to children who are members of, or who practise, their faith. But some schools have a points system under which children with the most points have the highest likelihood of being awarded a place.
In some schools, if a parent volunteers at a church – for example, by bell-ringing – their child is given a higher priority for a school place. This goes "beyond criteria that could reasonably be expected as part of religious membership or practice," Craig said. It also disadvantages less well-off parents who do not have the time to volunteer.
Other schools award points to children who have been baptised within three months of their birth. But in some Eastern European countries, the usual practice is to baptise a child when they reach one.
Speaking at the publication of the tribunal's annual report, Craig said: "We are bothered by the complexity of some faith schools' points systems. We have come across points that benefit white middle-class areas and don't benefit the immigrant children in the community." He said the issue affected all faith groups, but predominantly Christian schools because these outnumber other faith schools.
"We haven't found schools are deliberately skewing their intake, but our view is that this has been the effect. In some cases the faith schools are measuring parents' commitment to the church over and above the number of times a family attend church. Is it a measure of a parent's Christianity if they are bell-ringers at their church? In working-class areas, there might not be the option to do this."
Craig also warned that some comprehensive schools were illegally selecting pupils according to their academic ability. Schools with specialisms, such as music or languages, are allowed to select 10% of their pupils according to their "aptitude". However, the difference between ability and aptitude is not clear, Craig said.
"You tell me how you can select pupils on their musical aptitude using some sort of test that isn't also testing ability. We have spoken to some of the best brains in the country about this and they don't know how to do this."
The OSA took on 20 cases of this kind in the last 18 months and upheld three of them, in schools in Hertfordshire, Dorset, and Sutton in south London.
Craig said the number of parents' complaints in the last year had risen to 539 from 399 the previous year. Of these, 387 were about admissions – almost double the 201 last year. He put the rise down to increased "parental engagement".
Craig said that many local authorities mistakenly believed the schools in their area complied with school admissions laws. Some 88% told his office they were compliant, but a survey by the OSA found just 47% were. "Local authorities are required to police schools. But parents ought to police them, too. If parents believe a school is not complying with the law or the admissions code, they should challenge the school."
Michael Gove, the education secretary, said faith schools offered parents a "genuine choice".
"All maintained schools must comply with the school admissions code and related legislation, including faith schools, which prioritise pupils of their faith.
"In complying with legislation, maintained faith schools should – together with their religious authority – consider carefully any determination which may affect their admissions policies, and act accordingly.
"I intend to make the school admissions framework, including the school admissions code, simpler and fairer, and I have asked my officials to start speaking with key stakeholders."