Following a report published by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) last year revealing that almost every religiously-selective school in England is breaking the law, the Education Secretary has announced she now plans to ban groups and organisations from officially raising concerns about the admission arrangements of schools. In a thinly veiled attack on the BHA, the ban, which was first suggested by a variety of religious organisations in a meeting with Department for Education (DfE) officials last year, is specifically targeted at ‘secular campaign groups’, according to Nicky Morgan. The BHA has described the proposal as an ‘affront to both democracy and the rule of law’, stating that it will allow religiously selective schools to continue abusing the system and unfairly discriminate against a huge number of children in the process.
Under current rules, any citizen or civil society organisation is allowed to lodge an objection with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) if they believe a school has failed to comply with the School Admissions Code. In the absence of a body actively enforcing compliance with the Code, these objections from parents, local authorities, charities, and other organisations, represent the only impartial means of ensuring that schools adhere to the law and do not attempt to manipulate their intakes.
Despite this, the Government is now proposing to prohibit organisations from lodging objections with the OSA, largely in response to a joint BHA/FAC report published last year. The report, entitled An Unholy Mess: How virtually all religiously selective schools are breaking the law, detailed the rulings of the OSA on the admission arrangements of a small sample of religiously selective schools, finding widespread violations of the Code in every case. These violations acted to prevent parents from gaining fair access to state schools and the consequent rulings added credence to long-standing concerns about the cynical way in which religious selection is carried out in ‘faith’ schools. These concerns were widely shared by parents and clearly indicated that more needs to be done to enforce the Code, not less.
The Education Secretary’s comments represent the first time Nicky Morgan has confirmed her plan to push ahead with the ban, stating: ‘we are ensuring only local parents and councils can object to admissions arrangements, which will also put a stop to vexatious complaints against faith schools by secularist campaign groups’. The Government have stated that they plan to launch a consultation on the proposals in the next few months.
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘We all need to be clear about what is happening here. A near-universal failure to adhere to the law in a particular area has been identified. Instead of moving to enforce the law, the Government has responded by planning to make it harder to identify future violations of it. This is an affront to both democracy and the rule of law. It will reduce parents’ fair choice of state schools in the interests of the religious organisations that run them at taxpayers’ expense and demonstrates the Government is more interested in concealing the appalling record of religious schools manipulating their intakes than it is in addressing the serious problems this causes.
‘The report we published last year was provoked by the high volume of requests for help we receive every year from parents who are victims of the unfair system, and it revealed that a huge number of children are being unfairly denied places at their local schools due to the abuse of the admissions system by religiously-selective schools. Any restrictions on who can object will not only allow this to continue, it will encourage it by drastically reducing the accountability of the admissions process. The Government is due to consult on this draconian intervention in the next few months, and we will certainly be encouraging everyone who believes in a fairer, more transparent, and less discriminatory education system to respond and oppose the proposals.
‘In the past, civil servants from the Department for Education have often welcomed, indeed encouraged, ours and others’ exposing of schools that are frustrating Government policy by unfairly and unlawfully restricting parental access to and choice of state schools. This sudden change of attitude will be to the detriment not just of transparency in a vital public service, but also to the whole of society, and in particular to parents and children, in whose interest the publicly funded education system should surely be run.’
Ted Cantle CBE from the ICoCo Foundation also commented: ‘The report published by the Fair Admissions Campaign last year illustrates very clearly that admission arrangements are very open to manipulation and abuse, and it is evident that more enforcement of the School Admissions Code is needed, not less. The move to prevent organisations from submitting objections will reduce scrutiny and therefore represents quite a significant backward step. Parents will lose their right to anonymity and transparency will be significantly curtailed if the proposal goes ahead.’
For further comment or information please contact BHA Faith Schools and Education Campaigner, Jay Harman, on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7324 3078.
Read the BHA/FAC report An Unholy Mess: How virtually all religiously selective schools are breaking the law: https://humanism.org.uk/2015/10/01/an-unholy-mess-new-report-reveals-near-universal-noncompliance-with-school-admissions-code-among-state-faith-schools-in-england/
Read the FAC’s briefing on the report: http://fairadmissions.org.uk/anunholymess-briefing/
Particularly notable findings of the report include:
- Almost one in five schools were found to require practical or financial support to associated organisations – through voluntary activities such as flower arranging and choir-singing in churches or in the case of two Jewish schools, in requiring membership of synagogues (which costs money).
- Over a quarter of schools were found to be religiously selecting in ways not deemed acceptable even by their relevant religious authorities – something which the London Oratory School was also found guilty of earlier this year.
- A number of schools were found to have broken the Equality Act 2010 in directly discriminating on the basis of race or gender, with concerns also raised around discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and socio-economic status.
- 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, and in a few rare cases not prioritising LAC and PLAC at all. A quarter of schools were also found to not be making clear how children with statements of special educational needs were admitted.
- Almost 90% 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, but not specifying what kind of observance is required.
The Fair Admissions Campaign wants all state-funded schools in England and Wales to be open equally to all children, without regard to religion or belief. The Campaign is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations. We hold diverse views on whether or not the state should fund faith schools. But we all believe that faith-based discrimination in access to schools that are funded by the taxpayer is wrong in principle and a cause of religious, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation, all of which are harmful to community cohesion. It is time it stopped.
Supporters of the campaign include the Accord Coalition, the British Humanist Association, Professor Ted Cantle and the iCoCo Foundation, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Campaign for State Education, the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the Hindu Academy, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrat Education Association, Liberal Youth, the Local Schools Network, Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, the Runnymede Trust, the Socialist Educational Association, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.