‘An Unholy Mess’: New report reveals ‘near-universal noncompliance’ with School Admissions Code among religiously selective state schools in England

As many as hundreds of thousands of children have been unlawfully denied access to religiously selective state schools in England, almost all of which are failing to comply with the School Admissions Code, a major new report has revealed today.

‘An Unholy Mess: how virtually all religiously selective state schools in England are breaking the law’ has been produced by the British Humanist Association (BHA) on behalf of the Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC). It reveals ‘near-universal noncompliance’ with the School Admissions Code by religiously selective state secondary schools, which together with religiously selective primary schools account for well over a million state school places in England. The report details the rulings of the Schools Adjudicator on the admission arrangements of a sample of such schools, which found widespread violations of the Code in almost every case, confirming public concerns about the way in which religious selection is carried out in ‘faith’ schools.

The School Admissions Code sets out the rules that all state-funded schools in England must legally follow in setting their admission arrangements, and individuals are able to lodge objections with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) if they believe a school has failed to comply.

In 2014 FAC did just that, lodging objections to the arrangements of a representative sample of nearly 50 religiously selective secondary schools. With rulings on all bar one of those objections now completed, the OSA identified well over a thousand Code breaches, with near-universal non-compliance amongst schools. The findings suggest that religiously selective secondary schools across England may be breaking the Admissions Code some 12,000 times between them. Given that 1.2 million school places in England are subject to religious selection criteria, the number of children who are unfairly losing out on places is significant.

The findings reinforce concerns previously raised by FAC, among others, regarding abuse of the admissions system by religiously selective schools, and point to the pressing need for reform. The report makes a series of recommendations to this effect, including calling for the Code to be revised in a number of areas, and for the establishment of an independent monitoring service to enforce better compliance. Ultimately, however, the report concludes that the system of religious selection must be abandoned altogether.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, said, ‘Over a million state school places in England are subject to religious selection and it’s well known that religious schools have been abusing the admissions system for some time. Even so, no one can have imagined the problem was as widespread as this report shows. Of course, it’s a scandal to begin with that these schools are able by law to discriminate against children on the grounds of their parents’ religious beliefs, but the fact that they’re seeking to find further ways to turn children away is disgraceful. Religious selection by state schools is the archaic practice that allows these abuses and must be brought to an end.’

Professor Ted Cantle, Chair of the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo) Foundation and author of the Cantle Report into the 2001 race riots, added, ‘The system by which religious schools are able to set their own admissions criteria is clearly not fit for purpose. Not only does it require each school to be incredibly well-versed in the regulations in this area, it also gives cover, as this report illustrates, to those schools that wish to manipulate their intake and discriminate against individual or certain groups of children. This is clearly unacceptable and the system urgently needs to change in order to address it.’

Overview of findings

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.


For further information, please contact Richy Thompson on 07815589636 or email info@fairadmissions.org.uk.

Read the full report: https://fairadmissions.org.uk/anunholymess/

Read the FAC’s briefing on the report: https://fairadmissions.org.uk/anunholymess-briefing/

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 LecturersBritish 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 AssociationLiberal Youth, the Local Schools NetworkRichmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, the Runnymede Trust, the Socialist Educational Association, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.