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Ombudsman concludes faith school’s admissions investigation looks biased

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The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has upheld a complaint against a Charedi Jewish school after members of the panel appointed to investigate claims of unfairness and impropriety in its admissions policy were found to have family, professional, and financial links to the school. Humanists UK said the case shows why schools should not be permitted to act as their own admissions authorities and ‘inherently unfair’ faith-based selection policies should be scrapped.

The complaint against Menorah High School for Girls in North London was initially made after a parent – known only as ‘Mr P’ – failed to secure a place for his daughter in 2019. As Menorah is a voluntary aided school, the governors are the Admissions Authority and are responsible for admissions to the school. According to the school’s admissions policy, in the event it is oversubscribed, places are supposed to be allocated via a random ballot system. However, in the year that Mr P applied, there was no independent oversight of this ballot, contravening the School Admissions Code.

In response to Mr P’s complaint, the school accepted that this procedure was flawed because it had not been subject to appropriate oversight. But it still maintained the ballot itself was conducted fairly. Mr P was dissatisfied with this and, based on evidence including a letter from a member of staff to a governor ‘in which the member of staff appears to be responding to allegations of involvement in the selection of pupils’ and a governor referring to ‘colour coding’ of applicants which ‘would have no purpose in a random ballot’, continued to suspect misconduct. However, following a two-stage complaint process at school level, the first stage involving an independent investigator who provided a report on his findings, and the second an independent panel convened by the governors, the school concluded there was no evidence of deliberate wrongdoing.

According to the Ombudsman’s judgement, ‘the panel concluded there had been no impropriety in the ballot, notwithstanding the lack of independent oversight, since the governors conducting the ballot are “gentlemen of integrity and good repute”’. However, on the basis that the supposedly independent investigator and two of the independent panel members had significant ‘family, professional and financial links with the school, its staff, and governors’, Mr P complained to the Ombudsman calling their independence into question.

The Ombudsman found that, owing to the apparent links between the panel and the school, the governors’ response to Mr P’s complaint ‘was tainted by the appearance of bias’. However, it stopped short of questioning the outcome of their decision, saying there were ‘no grounds’ on which to do so.

Humanists UK Education Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:

‘Although we are pleased the Ombudsman upheld this complaint, it beggars belief that it stopped short of saying the supposedly independent panel convened by the school or the decisions they reached were actually biased. This is yet another case of religious organisations being afforded the privilege to disregard basic standards of fairness and provides a great illustration of the injustices perpetuated by the continuation of faith-based admissions.

‘Every child has a right to receive a good quality education in their local area, regardless of their parents’ religious or non-religious beliefs. The only way to stop the type of self-serving corruption seen in this and so many other cases relating to religious schools is to stop the practice of schools acting as their own admissions authorities and, ideally, scrap inherently unfair faith-based admissions altogether.’

Notes:

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

Read the Ombudsman’s report.

Read Humanists UK’s article on the Jewish school that breached the School Admissions Code by forbidding pupils and their mothers from wearing ‘very straight dresses or skirts’.

Read more about our work on faith schools.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 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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