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Religiously selective state schools in ‘near-universal non-compliance’ with School Admissions Code

Calls to reform system that provides schools with ample scope to admit only the most ‘promising' pupils

A new British Humanist Association report for the Fair Admissions Campaign, has revealed that as many as hundreds of thousands of children have been unlawfully denied access to religiously selective state schools in England, almost all of which are failing to comply with the School Admissions Code.

‘An Unholy Mess: how virtually all religiously selective state schools in England are breaking the law’ shows ‘near-universal non-compliance’ with the School Admissions Code by religiously selective state secondary schools, which together with religiously selective primary schools account for well over a million state school places in England.

It found that 72 per cent of places at these schools (430,000), or 13 per cent of mainstream state secondary school places, are subject to religious selection, if the schools are sufficiently oversubscribed. From this, the report estimates that 17 per cent of all mainstream state primary school places, or 770,000, are similarly religiously selective.

The report details the rulings of the Schools Adjudicator on the admission arrangements of a sample of such schools, which found widespread violations of the Code in almost every case, confirming public concerns about the way in which religious selection is carried out in ‘faith’ schools.

The findings reinforce concerns previously raised by both the BHA and the FAC, among others, regarding abuse of the admissions system by religiously selective schools, and point to the pressing need for reform.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, British Humanist Association, said: “We have been aware for some time, as has almost everyone else involved in education, that the system by which schools religiously select their pupils is not fit for purpose. This report confirms that beyond all doubt. The Adjudicator did not simply find breaches of the Code in every one of the schools we objected to; it invariably found further breaches beyond those that we had initially identified.”

Some of the more notable findings include:

Over a quarter of schools were found to be religiously selecting in ways not deemed acceptable even by their relevant religious authorities.
A number of schools were found to have broken the Equality Act 2010 in directly discriminating on the basis of race or gender.
A majority of schools were found not to be sufficiently prioritising looked after and previously looked after children (LAC and PLAC) – in most cases discriminating in unlawful ways against LAC and PLAC who were not of the faith of the school.
A quarter of schools were also found to not be making clear how children with statements of special educational needs were admitted.
Almost 90 per cent of schools were found to be asking for information from parents that they do not need. This included asking parents to declare their support for the ethos of the school and even asking for applicants’ countries of origin, whether or not they speak English as an additional language, and if they have any medical issues.
Nearly every school was found to have problems related to the clarity, fairness, and objectivity of their admissions arrangements. This included a lack of clarity about the required frequency of religious worship and asking a religious leader to sign a form confirming religious observance.

“While it is far from the case that every religiously selective school in the country is cynically manipulating the system or wilfully ignoring the Code in order to enhance their intake, the level of non-compliance that we found indicates that such manipulation is certainly taking place in far too many schools,” says Copson. “It is for these instances that the need for reform is most immediate, but it is clear that vast numbers of schools simply lack the expertise and resources to navigate what is a muddled and overly complex system. Ultimately, of course, it does not matter whether the failures we identify are intentional or inadvertent. Children lose out either way.

“In the report we’ve recommended that the Code be subject to stricter enforcement, that it be clarified in some areas and completely revised in others, and these things would undoubtedly serve to improve the situation,” he continues. “Not only does the system provide schools with ample scope to act on the perverse incentive to admit only the most ‘promising’ children, it encourages and often forces parents to lie about their religion in order get their children into the local school. But perhaps worst of all, it defines those children by beliefs they are too young to confidently hold for themselves and then seeks to divide them on that basis. When a system makes criminals out of schools, liars out of parents and, in the midst of it all, an awful lot of children get left behind, it is time for reform.”

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Pie Corbett