Illegal admission criteria for religious schools

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This year’s annual report by the chief schools adjudicator, Sir Philip Hunter, has confirmed that a disproportionally high number of faith schools failed to fully implement the government's new code on admissions. Yet, whilst the statistics are high, how many of the complaints made by parents are justified?

Much has been written recently about the illegal admissions practices uncovered at 3,500 faith schools, foundation schools and academies by the Schools Adjudicator, Sir Philip Hunter, in a study ordered by schools secretary Ed Balls into admissions code compliance.

Faith schools, in particular, have been found to be among the worst offenders for breaching admissions rules.

The report concluded that there was ‘evidence of widespread and serious departures from the Code,’ and that failure to adhere to the admissions arrangements may have led to potentially thousands of families being wrongly refused places at their chosen schools, with little hope of having the decision reversed.

The accusations included asking illegal questions about parents' marital and employment status, and the charging of fees by asking for financial contributions - particularly by Jewish schools who said they needed the money for religious teaching and extra security.

The story made front-page news and put pressure on the government to take action against faith schools, which control their own admission procedures.  Meanwhile, as the scandal rumbled on, council leaders called for a veto on faith schools' admission policies.

But how much of the illegal admissions fiasco bears up under closer inspection?

Annual report

It’s true that the annual report by the chief schools adjudicator found that many schools were asking unfair questions on application forms such as parents’ occupation – hence breaching the code. Yet, it also found that most of the breaches were administrative, rather than intentional on the part of the schools.

“Most of them were about definitions such as schools failing to define distance,” Sir Philip said. “There were also issues about supplementary information forms and schools asking things they shouldn’t ask.”

It seems that most of the schools hadn’t used the answers, but had been asking for information they were not allowed to - such as the occupation of a candidate’s parents.

The Catholic Education Service for England and Wales echoed the report findings by saying that most of the breaches in their schools were of a minor and technical nature, which it was working to correct.

Oona Stannard, chief executive and director, said: “Catholic schools have very good academic outcomes and are judged highly in terms of the successful personal development of all pupils. Sir Philip has acknowledged the hard work and considerable good will that has been demonstrated by all involved in the process as they work together to ensure a fair admissions process for all.”

That said, Sir Philip admitted that it was inevitable that some faith schools would inevitably show up as breaching the code because they set their own admissions arrangements.

Admissions policies

Faith schools operate a variety of admissions policies, often determined by the schools’ mission and levels of subscription. Many faith schools in areas of high social deprivation don’t have selective admissions policies; their mission is to serve their local community through education regardless of the faith make-up of that community.

However, other faith schools see their mission as a way to pass on religious belief and culture from one generation to another, and have closed admission procedures with the majority of places allocated to those from their own faith community.

In autumn 2006, some religious groups even showed their determination to maintain autonomy over admissions by overturning government plans that obliged faith schools to reserve up to 25 percent of school places for pupils with other or no faith, where there was local demand.

But admissions to faith schools relates not only to equality of access, but to perceived academic success. Research has shown that higher performance levels of faith schools occur in those with selective admissions procedures and that these higher rates of achievement are due to autonomous governance and admissions arrangements and not due to religious character – in other words the very characteristics that can potentially open up illegal admissions practices.

If we accept this, the very nature of autonomous governance and admissions arrangements is what makes popular faith schools successful. Which leads us on to something else Sir Philip said: he believes the objections from parents have increased due to rising expectations, rather than any fundamental breakdown in the system itself. And there are plenty of voices that agree with this belief.

Schools Minister, Jim Knight, said recently: “It is absolutely right that parents have the legal right to appeal to an independent panel. I want every child to have a fair and equal chance of getting into a school, regardless of background – that’s why we have toughened up enforcement of unlawful arrangements and made the appeals process even more transparent.

“The very small proportion of appeals heard, compared to the overall number of admissions processed, shows the system works well – 98% of primary admissions offers and over 94% of secondary do not have any appeal heard against them.

“There will always be some oversubscribed schools, more popular than others – the key is to give parents confidence that their local schools can meet children’s needs or talents wherever they live.”

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said earlier this year that the higher-profile admissions system was creating unrealistic expectations of choice among parents, and he criticised comments from the schools minister that encouraged disappointed parents to use the appeals process.

Regarding the appeals process, he said at the time: “Not only will the vast majority be disappointed by the end of the process, a vast amount of bureaucracy will have been created and heads will have wasted hundreds of hours.”

Martin Johnson, acting deputy general secretary of the ATL teachers’ union, mirrored Dr Dunford’s comments, saying that the school admissions system appeared to provide school choice, when this was not really on offer.

“The vocabulary of choice is a fantasy and creates totally false expectations,” he said. “It would be fairer to everyone to end this myth and let schools get on with providing the best education they can for all their pupils.”

Following the publication of the Schools Adjudicator's report, John Dunford said most dissatisfaction came from parents being misled by the rhetoric of school choice.

“The core problem for school admissions, as the schools adjudicator has recognised in his report, is difference between choice and preference.

“Parents do not have, and cannot have, as much choice over schools as the political rhetoric of ‘choice and diversity’ has led them to believe.

“Selecting a school is not like choosing breakfast cereals or clothes, in which there is a genuine choice for consumers, nor is it like healthcare, where you can delay an operation in order to be in the hospital of your choice.

“Schools have a fixed number of places and children move into them at fixed times.”

It appears the statistics back up these views. When the government’s new admission appeals statistics were published in May, they show there are no changes to the overall national picture – with 82% of children getting their first preference and 94% getting an offer for one of their top three preferences.

Transparency

There is no doubt that some faith schools are flouting the admissions guidelines, but there is also reason to believe that some parents who lodge a complaint are simply getting on the popular bandwagon because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In a two-month period, parents lodged 111 complaints regarding school admissions, and over half of those related to faith schools, who were cited in the report as being the worst offenders. Some were unintentional breaches of the rules, but the uproar caused by the report resulted in some council leaders demanding a veto on faith schools’ admission policies.

The report also showed that a large proportion of complaints, which were against proposed admissions arrangements for 2009, came from parents. In addition, 142 complaints were from local authorities.

Education Act

The animosity that some feel towards faith schools has its roots in the 1944 Education Act, which first gave church authorities a degree of independence in return for a financial contribution to their schools.

Since 1944, government legislation has given increased powers and freedoms to religious schools compared to state-maintained faith schools, whilst reducing their financial commitment. Today, faith schools receive grants of up to 90 per cent of the total cost towards capital costs of the buildings and 100 per cent of running costs, including teachers’ salaries, from the state. Yet voluntary-aided faith schools, for example, are allowed to impose faith restrictions on employment, admissions, curriculum content and on school worship.

It is this perceived unfairness that drives the demand for faith schools to be more accountable if they continue to receive their current level of state funding. After all, it is the community that pays such a large proportion of their costs.

This contentious issue, coupled with the changing nature of parent expectations, is what really lies at the root of most heated debates surrounding admissions policies.

As Sir Philip said, following the publication of his report: “Parents are now saying more and more they want the school of their choice. There’s no possibility ever of all parents getting their first choice, even if every school everywhere in the world was absolutely perfect, even if every school had 100% exam results and test results and good Ofsted reports and was in beautiful buildings, some schools would still be more popular than others.

“You will always end up with one disgruntled party. It’s a fact of life, you have to make a decision about which party is right and which should get priority.”

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