Challenge existing religiously selective schools

This page sets out how faith schools that control their own admissions policy (i.e. Foundation schools, Voluntary Aided schools, Academies and Free Schools) must periodically consult in forming those policies. An opportunity consequentially exists for inclusiveness in admissions to be advocated from within these schools that determine their admissions arrangements. The Fair Admissions Campaign puts forward a range of arguments about why religiously selective admissions should be avoided, which can be drawn from, and what follows gives details as to how to go about doing so. It outlines how local school admissions consultations take place; who the representative religious bodies for different schools are; how governing bodies are composed; and specific issues within the Catholic and Anglican sectors.

A similar issue is if a school decides to increase religious selection by expanding their intake (formally, their published admissions number). The arguments put forth in what follows are equally applicable to this circumstance.

Finally, we would encourage supporters to become school governors who can influence the admissions policy of their school. Local campaign groups should also look for opportunities to encourage support from existing faith school governors.

Local school admissions consultations

If a school wishes to change or formally review existing admissions arrangements at schools that it controls it must follow a statutory consultation process, which is set out in sections 1.42 to 1.50 of the English School Admissions Code and Chapter 2 of the Welsh School Admissions Code. Details on how a school changes its Published Admissions Number are set out in sections 1.2-1.5 of the English Code and Chapter 2 of the Welsh Code.

As the codes state, schools in England are required to consult on their admissions arrangements at least every seven years, although they can review and change admissions arrangements every year if they so wish. Schools in Wales must consult on their admissions arrangements every three years, unless an objection has been made to their admissions arrangements within the previous five years. The English code also states that a consultation period must last for a minimum of eight weeks and take place between 1 November and 1 March, and that the school must consult with a wide range of parties, as set out in section 1.44. The Welsh code states that consultations must take place between 1 September and 1 March, and sets out who must/should be consulted in sections 2.5-2.6.

The first task of any campaign to change local admission policies is therefore to find out when its local schools intend to hold their next consultations. You may be able to find out when the last consultation took place and if another is planned by merely looking at the school’s website. However, if not, you should contact the school to ask for further details.

Representative religious bodies

The potential for change at religiously selective schools is constrained by guidance from the school’s representative body or persons of the religion or religious denomination. As the English School Admissions Code states, admission authorities ‘… must have regard to any guidance from the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination when constructing faith based oversubscription criteria … they must also consult with the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination when deciding how membership or practice of the faith is to be demonstrated’ (Section 1.38, p14-15). The Welsh School Admissions Code states that ‘Church or religious authorities may provide guidance for the admission authorities of schools of their faith that sets out what process and criteria may be used to establish membership of the faith. Such guidance should clearly define the terms used and how membership is to be determined, and must be consistent with the provisions and guidelines of this Code. Where such guidance is produced, the admissions authorities for schools of the faith should follow it’ (Section 2.42, p21).

The relevant bodies or persons for faith schools in England are listed in a schedule to regulations, although Jewish faith schools in England are listed in a separate schedule. For the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church it is the Diocese that is responsible. Faith schools in Wales are either Church in Wales, Roman Catholic or jointly Church in Wales/Roman Catholic schools, and like in England, the representative body is the respective local Diocese.

Governing bodies and Academy Trusts

Although Catholic schools are required to consult with their Diocese before determining admission arrangements, and Church of England schools are required to consult with their Diocese about proposed admission arrangements before any public consultation, responsibility for the admissions policy of a religiously selective school rests with the governing body if it is a Voluntary Aided or Foundation school, and with the Academy Trust if it is an Academy. However some Trusts may delegate responsibility to a school’s governing body.

Members of a religious Academy’s Trust will be chosen by the school’s founding body, church or other organisation(s) named in the school’s instrument of government, and the Trust will appoint most of an Academy’s governors. At least two governors must be parent governors, who are selected by election (or appointment if insufficient people stand for election) and drawn from parents and carers of children at the school.

At Voluntary Aided and some Foundation schools a majority of governors will be appointed by the school’s founding body, church or other organisation(s) named in the school’s instrument of government, and these ‘foundation’ governors are likely to be selected from those active within the school’s respective faith or denominational group. Along with two parent governors, they will be joined on the governing body by a school’s head teacher, while other governors may be appointed by the local authority and elected by a school’s staff.

Roman Catholic schools

Guidance to Roman Catholic schools and the Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical law provides limited scope for schools to be made more inclusive on faith grounds. As the document ‘Christ at the Centre: why the Church provides Catholic Schools’ (endorsed by the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales and the Archbishop of Westminster, who serves as President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales) notes:

‘To ensure that Catholic children are given priority in the allocation of school places and benefit from this provision, the admission criteria of Catholic schools should be formulated in such a way that Catholic children and young people are always given priority in the allocation of school places over and above all other applicants.’

There are Catholic schools in England and Wales that do not select all pupils on faith grounds when oversubscribed, such as in the fee paying sector and at Catholic Free Schools in England – the Department for Education prevents Free Schools with a religious character selecting more than 50% of their pupils on faith grounds, and by September 2014 there are set to be four Catholic Free Schools. Incidentally, many state funded Catholic schools in Scotland (and many other countries) are not permitted to select children on religious grounds. Campaigners can and should point to these schools as proof that Catholic schools do not need to have religiously selective admission s policies, though at the current time there seems little indication that Church authorities will be moved by these arguments. However, this does not rule out campaigners trying to make the admissions policy at some Catholic schools more inclusive in other ways, such as in terms of how a school defines those it wants to privilege, and how religious selection criteria interrelate with other considerations.

For example, in 2009 the Schools Adjudicator upheld a complaint from the Archdiocese of Westminster about one of its own schools that was operating a points-based admissions system that gave greater priority to applicants according to their of their parent’s involvement in church related activities. In contrast, the Diocese wanted the school to treat those applicants who met the Diocese’s definition of membership and practice of the Catholic faith the same. This definition was drafted more loosely than the school’s, in part because the Diocese was concerned that applicants could otherwise be discriminated against on ethnic and socio-economic grounds, with those of greater means to be more active in the Church being privileged over other Catholics. This case demonstrates primacy of Dioceses over their schools in the area of admissions, but also highlights existing concerns about how religiously selective policies can favour those from different ethnic and socio-economic groups over others.

Meanwhile, religiously selective schools, and particularly Catholic schools, may prioritise children deemed to be of the faith over those who are not, even when they have a sibling or siblings at the school. Such policies may therefore have the effect of dividing families, and it is a problem that is being seen more frequently. Although it is an unintended consequence of faith selection, it is one that prompts challenging questions related to the mission of religiously selective schools. Similarly, campaigners may also wish to challenge how a school treats applications once the place of those children of the school’s denomination or faith has been secured. Can further subdividing and prioritising the applications for the remaining children on the grounds of religion be justified in terms of a school’s purpose, and is it proportionate?

Anglican schools

In contrast to the situation in Catholic schools, guidance for Anglican Dioceses and schools permits much greater flexibility, reflecting the different approaches that already exist within the Anglican school sector. Not only are a large number of Anglican schools Voluntary Controlled, most of which are not allowed to select pupils on faith grounds, but some Anglican schools that control their own admission policies choose not to have religiously selective oversubscription criteria, while (more commonly) some limit the amount of places awarded to children on faith grounds.

Church guidance on admissions helps open the door to arguments for inclusivity in admissions, and from a distinctly Anglican perspective. ‘Admissions to Church of England Schools: Board of Education/National Society Advice to Diocesan Boards of Education’ from June 2011 identifies that Church Schools ‘… have both served the local community as an expression of service and also provided for the Church family an education within an explicitly Anglican Christian ethos and framework’ (paragraph 20). The guidance goes on to note that:

‘35. In individual schools the balance between nurture and service will depend on ethos, history and tradition, local circumstances, including whether there are other Church of England schools in the area and the current governors’ commitment to the purposes of the school. When a governing body reviews its Admissions Policy, it should have regard to the responsibility of all Church schools to be living Christian communities strongly related to the local community. In recognition of the vocation of the Church to transform the world, Church schools should also seek to be inclusive of the wider community. There are a number of ways by which inclusiveness can be interpreted, but all Church schools should ensure that their policies do make that provision. In some cases policies based solely on the immediate, local neighbourhood may not in fact create a diverse community reflective of the wider area and that too needs to be taken into account.

‘36. Church of England schools should be able to show how their Admissions Policy and practice demonstrates the school’s commitment both to distinctiveness and inclusivity, to church families and the wider community.’

This varied and more open approach to inclusiveness can also be witnessed at a Diocesan level. For example, the policy of the Church of England London Diocesan Board for Schools policy is encouraging all of its existing schools to only select half of pupils on religious grounds if oversubscribed, while it advocates that new schools should not select any children with recourse to faith. A number of London Church schools to open from 2013 are not taking into account any religious considerations in their admission policies when oversubscribed. Although the schools could select on faith grounds, they have chosen not to, and this is to be commended.