On secondary national offer day, and in the week by which schools must have determined their admission arrangements for 2017, the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) have announced that, as a result of their successful campaigning, priority previously given in state schools’ admission policies to children whose parents help with ‘flower arranging’, ‘cleaning’, or ‘maintenance’ at church has now been fully eradicated from all schools in England.
The BHA and FAC have repeatedly forced schools to drop these criteria over the last few years by submitting objections to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA). An objection to the admission arrangements of the last known school to prioritise children in this way, Emmaus Church of England and Catholic School in Liverpool, was upheld by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) late last year. In addition, the BHA has learnt that the London Oratory School has chosen to withdraw its appeal to a High Court judgement ruling against the school in April last year, meaning that no child will now be subject to ‘selection by flower arranging’.
Priority given to parents on the basis of church activities, which can also include choir singing, has proved consistently controversial, primarily due to the key role it is seen to play in driving the socio-economic bias inherent to religious selection, given that more affluent parents are often better able to support the church in the ways suggested by schools than are families from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Research has previously revealed that the London Oratory is one of the most socio-economically selective state secondary schools in the country, with just 6% of their pupils eligible for free school meals despite the fact that the average eligibility in the local area sits at 36%. The long-running legal dispute over the admission arrangements employed by the school finally came to an end over two and a half years after the BHA first objected to the arrangements. In 2014 the OSA found that the school’s admission policy was unlawful in more than 100 different ways, and the judgement in the High Court in April left the vast majority of the OSA’s findings upheld.
Regrettably, the Oratory is by no means the only school that has been failing to comply with the School Admissions Code to this extent. A report published by the BHA and FAC last year revealed that non-compliance was ‘near-universal’ among religiously selective schools, with violations ranging from not properly prioritising looked after and previously looked after children to directly discriminating on the basis of race and gender.
At the end of last month, the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan announced that she will seek to ban civil society organisations from objecting to the admission arrangements of schools in the future, a move which she described as an attempt to ‘stop vexatious complaints against faith schools by secularist campaign groups’, but which has been strongly opposed by the BHA, parliamentarians, and the public alike.
BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Jay Harman said, ‘The fact that flower arranging, cleaning, and maintenance no longer appear in any state schools’ admission arrangements demonstrates the value of national campaign groups being able to object to schools’ admissions policies, where they do not comply with the law. The fact that Nicky Morgan is proposing to ban national groups from lodging any further objections is clearly against the interest of parents and children as it is only through our objections that these practices have been stamped out.’
With respect to the Oratory, Mr Harman added, ‘The Oratory’s decision to withdraw its appeal represents the end of a two and a half year battle, and we’re relieved that the dispute can now be put to bed. It may just be one school, but this case has come to be symbolic of the wider struggle to challenge religious discrimination in our schools, and the result is therefore an incredibly significant one.
‘Of course, as long as schools remain free to employ faith-based selection of any kind, religious, racial, and socio-economic segregation will continue to be a significant feature of our education system, and this is something that needs to be addressed now more than ever. For our part we will continue to campaign against this discrimination, and in favour of an education system that is inclusive, fair, and which contributes positively to social cohesion, rather than detracts from it.’
For further information or comment please contact BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Jay Harman on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7324 3078.
Read the BHA and FAC’s report ‘An Unholy Mess: How virtually all religiously selective state schools in England are breaking the law’: http://fairadmissions.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/An-Unholy-Mess.pdf
Background to the London Oratory’s admission arrangements
The BHA first complained about the school’s admissions policy in May 2013. In August 2013 the OSA issued a decision upholding the complaint and ruling against the school, but the school threatened to judicially review this, and in November the OSA found an inconsequential error in its report, leading to the decision being quashed. The new determination made in July 2014, which also looked at the school’s latest policy, again found against the school, and on a much more comprehensive basis than before.
However, in October the School applied to judicially review the decision on nine grounds, including the findings of socio-economic discrimination, of taking account of religious activities not permitted by the school’s Diocese, and of taking into account the religious practice of both parents instead of just one. The judgement, handed down in April this year, overturned some of the OSA’s findings but left the vast majority of the adjudicator’s findings upheld, and after further submissions were requested by the judge, the OSA confirmed that even more of the changes to the school’s policy ordered last year would stand – including the removal of the ‘Catholic service criterion’.
Since first submitting this complaint, the BHA has helped found the Fair Admissions Campaign. ‘The 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.’
Visit the Fair Admissions Campaign website: http://fairadmissions.org.uk/
Read more about the BHA’s work on ‘faith’ schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/faith-schools/
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.