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Faith school requiring weekly church attendance ‘unreasonable’, says admissions tribunal

A Church of England school admissions policy that prioritises pupils from families who attend church 45 times per year over a four year period breaches the School Admissions Code because it is unreasonable, the admissions tribunal has found.

The Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) – which is responsible for ensuring schools stick to admissions rules in England – upheld a complaint against the Blue Coat School in Oldham on the grounds that a criterion prioritising families who could demonstrate weekly worship is ‘off-putting to families considering applying for a place’ and was ‘illogical’ because it had never, in practice, been applied.

However, the OSA stopped short of upholding a complaint that the policy requiring this ‘weekly’ worship unfairly discriminated against ‘single-parent and low income families, who might have difficulty in achieving such a level of attendance’. This was because, with one exception, between 2007 and 2019 all applicants who met a lower (‘fortnightly’) church attendance criterion of 24 times over three years were admitted to the school. The OSA argued that this meant, in practice, families would only need to attend church on a fortnightly basis to secure a place at the school.

Humanists UK, which has long campaigned for an integrated school system that is open to all irrespective of background, welcomed the news that the weekly church attendance requirement had been found to breach the Code. However, it expressed dismay that the OSA deemed fortnightly church attendance reasonable, and failed to properly acknowledge the impact this is likely to have on disadvantaged families to access a place at a state funded school.

In 2015, research conducted by the Accord Coalition on behalf of the Fair Admissions Campaign, of which Humanists UK is a member, found that the religiously selective admissions policy of the Blue Coat School indirectly discriminated against pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds, with a significant mismatch between the number of their pupils with South Asian ethnicity (2.2%), and the proportion of children of secondary school age living locally with that ethnicity (57%). The complaint also referred to the potential of the weekly worship requirement to impact disproportionately on pupils from Black African backgrounds. However, this too was dismissed, on the grounds that the complainant didn’t have sufficient data to back up the suggestion that the proportion of such pupils attending the school did not match the proportion of such pupils in the Anglican community.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham said:

‘A requirement to attend worship 45 times per year over a minimum four year period to secure a school place is utterly unreasonable. Unfortunately, owing to an exemption in the Equality Act permitting schools to select pupils on religious grounds, the OSA has nevertheless been forced to conclude that a similar criterion requiring 24 visits to church per year is reasonable when, to all right-minded people, this still simply isn’t the case.

‘The UK is one of just four OECD member countries where state-funded schools are permitted to discriminate in this way. And research shows religious selection disproportionately impacts families in disadvantaged groups, including those from poor and minority ethnic backgrounds. Polling data shows that most of the British public, including a majority of religious people, think religious selection shouldn’t be allowed. We urge the Government to repeal the laws permitting faith schools to prioritise pupils from families who share their beliefs and make our state-funded schools fully inclusive and open to all regardless of background.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham at ruth@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.

Read our most recent news item on extremist views being more common in young people who don’t mix with those with other beliefs.

Read our recent research on the impact of religiously selective admissions in Liverpool.

Read our most recent article on unfair and discriminatory faith-based admissions policies acting as a barrier to socio-economic diversity in schools.

Read our article on the Sutton Trust poll saying 80% of parents think schools should have a mix of pupils from different backgrounds.

Read our article on the first fully religiously selective state-funded school to be approved for a decade.

Read more about our work on faith schools and religious selection.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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