Having got the previous post off my chest, I now feel free to post this…

A while ago I wrote two posts (here and here) about the admissions policies operated by faith schools.  Included in the post was a link to a letter from the Joint Committee on Human Rights asking the Department for Children, Schools and Families to justify its policy in relation to such admissions policies.  I wrote to the Department of Education enclosing a copy of my blog entries and asking for a copy of their reply to the Joint Commitee, and have now received the following reply.

Dear Ms A********,

Thank you for your recent more detailed e.mail of 17 October about Case Reference 2007/0068947. Your e.mail refers to your weblog which raises a number of concerns about faith schools admissions. I will endeavour to respond to the main issues in your blog below.

Insufficient non-faith places in area primary schools

In your blog you describe a situation where, because of the prevalence of faith schools in your vicinity, secular children do not, in your view, have a choice of a good school, as all the available places are allocated to faith applicants.

This does not, however, seem to be the actual picture in your area. There are 6 all through primaries, 1 junior and 1 infant school within a mile of your postcode. Six of these are community schools, most with good standards of education. Their admission arrangements are determined by the local authority and they cannot adopt faith criteria.  However, I appreciate that it can seem to parents without a faith that there is very little provision for them when there are a number of faith schools, and not much else, in an area. First of all, it is unlawful for a faith school to say, as your blog implies, ‘that it would not accept applications from children who are outside its designated faith group’. In 2002 the Government repealed a provision (section 91) in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that allowed faith schools to keep places empty if insufficient faith applicants applied. Now all schools, faith or otherwise, are required to comply with parental preference if they are not oversubscribed, and to consider all applications for a place. If any faith schools are refusing to consider non faith applicants then they are acting unlawfully. You may therefore want to refer a complaint to the local Admission Forum or ****** County Council which both have responsibilities to ensure that local admission arrangements are fair. Parents also have a right of objection to admission arrangements (alongside statutory consultees). Admission arrangements are determined in the April before the year in which they are to apply (April 2008 for September 2009 admissions) and the local authority is required to publish a notice on 1 May setting out the extent to which local admission arrangements for all schools in the area have been determined and to also state where parents can inspect the arrangements. The notice is published in a free paper circulating locally. Parents have six weeks from the date of this notice to object to the Schools Adjudicator. He will consider whether the arrangements are fair and lawful and reach a determination which is binding on the school or schools. Legislation and the School Admissions Code now include provisions which allow faith bodies to give guidance to their schools in order to ensure clarity and fairness. We are currently in the throes of obtaining information from various representative organisations on the general guidance they will be giving their schools. The faith bodies also have a right of objection to their schools’ arrangements for the 2009 admission round onwards. As the faith primaries within a mile of your home are both CE primaries the Church of England Guidance is most relevant in your case.

‘In cases where the provision of church schools is plentiful, the proportion of local priority places would normally be higher than where provision is scarce. In some parts of the country 3 out of 4 primary schools are provided by the Church of England. There it might be appropriate to make 75% or even 100% of places available on the basis of local priority. In such cases, all those who lived within the parish or parishes the school served would be offered places as a priority. In other parts of the country, possibly in the same diocese, only one in twelve primary schools is provided by the Church of England. There it might be appropriate to make as little as 15% of places available on a local priority basis.’

As you see, the Church of England advises its schools, where there are a high proportion of CE schools, to offer the majority of places to the community as a whole. If schools did not adhere to this guidance it would be open to the local diocese, or another statutory objector, to object to the Adjudicator.

Concerns that faith schools may be adopting unlawful and unfair admission practices

I have already touched on this issue above, but it might be worth pointing out some of the other safeguards which have been built into the system through the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and the School Admissions Code. Of course all these provisions rely on people exercising their right of objection to the Adjudicator but if arrangements truly are unfair or unlawful there is an incentive for them to do so. I note however, that no one has submitted any objections to the 2008 admission arrangements in your area.  If you are a parent, it was open to you to submit an objection within the six week period following 1 May.

The Education and Inspections Act places duties on local authorities to promote fair access (section 1) and on schools to promote community cohesion (section 38).

The new legislation and Admissions Code make improvements to what went before to ensure that an effective procedure is in place to ensure that schools do not adopt arrangements that lead to social segregation or are otherwise unfair:

Legislation:

·        Prevents the introduction of new selection by ability

·        Rules out interviewing in admissions. A minority of faith schools previously used interviews to test knowledge of the faith.

·        Extends the power of objection to admission forums and prescribed faith bodies (regulations designating faith bodies will come into force in late November), and now allows parents to object if arrangements are unlawful or not in line with the mandatory provisions of the Code.

·        Extends the policing role of the Schools Adjudicator so that, on referral of an objection, he can now make changes to any aspect of a school’s admission arrangements.

·        Gives the School Admissions Code mandatory force. 

The School Admissions Code:

·        Rules out taking account of the occupational, financial, social or marital status of parents.

·        Rules out giving priority to children whose parents are more willing to financially support the school or practically support the school’s ethos.

·        Rules out the use of supplementary application forms except for in faith schools in order to determine membership or practice of a religion.

·        States that admission authorities and governing bodies must ensure their admission arrangements and other policies are fair and do not disadvantage particular social or racial groups.

·        Requires all faith schools to consult their faith bodies on their admission arrangements (previously this was mandatory only for CE schools).

·        States that faith schools must make clear how membership or practice is to be demonstrated in line with guidance issued by their faith provider group, which must be clear, objective and transparent.  Faith schools must also have regard to any guidance produced by their religious authority (and this guidance, like the CE guidance, could go as far as to say, in areas with a high concentration of faith schools, the broader community should be given priority).

·        Now places a statutory duty on local authorities to submit an objection when they consider, or are made aware of, any unfair or unlawful arrangements.

Requirement to provide maintained faith schools.

The involvement of faith schools in education in this country predates the role of the state. The 1944 Education Act introduced the current dual system of schools with a religious character and those without a religious character and faith schools have been an integral part of the maintained school system ever since.

There is no requirement in law for the state to fund faith schools but it would not be sensible to remove such schools from the maintained sector. Why should the government wish to do so when faith schools generally perform well and there is parental demand for such places?

Removing them from the state sector would deprive more socially deprived parents with firm religious convictions of the opportunity to access a good quality education in line with their religious beliefs. While it is not necessary to have state maintained faith schools in order to comply with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) the Government is of the view that their existence within the state sector strengthens its ability to allow parents to access education ‘in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’ in accordance with the Convention and Human Rights Act.

Your request for a copy of the response to Andrew Dismore’s letter of 26 July to the Secretary of State  

This is available from the House of Parliament website via this link: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/PLS%2032.pdf 

Yours sincerely,

Mark Earl
School Admissions Policy, Implementation and Good Practice Team

Department for Children, Schools and Families
5D9 Sanctuary Buildings

Mark.EARL@dcsf.gsi.gov.uk”

It is, incidentally, one of the things I like about the United Kingdom.   Letters from ordinary individuals to government departments are always answered.  Whether it makes the slightest bit of difference, and whether I think the answer is honest and free from duplicity, are two quite separate issues.

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