Toby Young attacks parent-led Hammersmith and Fulham Fair Admissions Campaign

Toby Young has today written a piece in The Spectator attacking the newly formed Fair Admissions in Hammersmith & Fulham parent group. Here is our and parent Emily Wood’s response to Mr Young, interspersed with his original article…

An email popped into my inbox on Tuesday morning urging me to join a ‘fair admissions campaign’ that’s been launched by a couple of mums in Shepherd’s Bush. Their children are at a local primary school and they’re angry that they won’t be able to get them into any of the local faith schools. ‘Two of our children are in Year Five and we feel offended by the fact that out of 11 secondary schools in the borough almost half will put them at the very bottom of the waiting list due to our “wrong” beliefs,’ they write.

Now, I’m probably among the dozen or so local residents least likely to join this campaign but, to be fair, I don’t think they singled me out. Rather, they sent the same email to hundreds of people, hoping to cash in on the fact that Tuesday was ‘National Offer Day’, the day when parents who’ve applied to state secondaries learn their children’s fate.

I have some sympathy for these women. One of the reasons I helped set up the West London Free School is because I, too, was unhappy about the quality of education being offered by the local secular comprehensives. But that was five years ago. There are three new secondary schools in the borough now — two of them free schools — and the old ones have got better. For instance, the percentage of children getting five A–Cs in their GCSEs including English and maths at Fulham Cross Girls’ School was 48 per cent in 2008, compared to 69 per cent in 2013. The gap in quality between local comprehensives and local faith schools is closing.

As a matter of fact, the religiously selective secondary schools in Hammersmith and Fulham all outperform the schools that do not select, recording between 77% and 91% achieving 5 A*-Cs (average 84%) including English and maths at GCSE, compared with between 38% and 70% for the other schools (average 53%). Mr Young has cherry-picked Fulham Cross as the best performing school with no religious character but even this doesn’t perform as well as the worst-performing religiously selective school.

Furthermore, the degree to which the religiously selective schools in Hammersmith and Fulham cause socio-economic selection is huge. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s map records that the London Oratory School, the boys’ Catholic secondary, only admits 7% of pupils who are eligible for free school meals, compared with 36% of pupils locally. This makes it the ninth most socio-economically selective secondary school in the country and the worst in London, and is almost certainly a consequence of the school’s hugely complex admissions criteria, requiring weekly Church attendance by parent and child for three years, baptism within six months, first communion, and finally, practical support to the Church through three years of participation in activities such as flower arranging. If it weren’t oversubscribed with Catholics, it would then admit Orthodox Christians, followed by Anglicans, then other Christians, then those of other faiths, and finally those of no faith. The British Humanist Association is involved in an ongoing, high profile battle with the school over this after it complained to the Schools Adjudicator that this and many other aspects break the Admissions Code, with the prospect of judicial review by the school very much on the agenda.

The girls’ Catholic secondary, Sacred Heart School, isn’t much better. It takes 6% of pupils eligible for free school meals, compared with 33% locally. This makes it the sixteenth most socio-economically selective school nationally. It also religiously selects every pupil, having twelve different categories of Catholic. It requires four years of weekly Church attendance by parent and child and baptism within six months, as well as having the same pecking order of other faiths. Its admissions policy also likely breaks the Admissions Code, in prioritising pupils from unnamed feeder schools.

Lady Margaret School, the girls’ Church of England secondary, is also highly discriminatory. It takes 10% of pupils eligible for free school meals, compared with 36% locally. This ranks it number 19 on the Fair Admissions Campaign’s list. For the 56% of places religiously selected, it requires fortnightly church attendance for three years, and also likely breaks the School Admissions Code in prioritising pupils from unnamed feeder schools. The school also uses banding, which, when done by isolated schools in this manner, can also lead to socio-economic selection.

On top of all this is Fulham Boys School, a new CofE secondary school opening this September. As it is a Free School it is limited to selecting half of its pupils on the basis of faith – although this remains 50% more than the Diocese of London wants to see. How socio-economically inclusive the school turns out to be remains to be seen.

The last religious school currently open is Burlington Danes Academy, a mixed sex CofE school. It only religiously selects 25% of places, and as a consequence is actually more socio-economically inclusive than its area: 46% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared to 39% locally.

Overall, however, this means that the socio-economic segregation between the religiously selective schools in Hammersmith & Fulham and the rest is a staggering 27 percentage points – almost double the national average of 15% of pupils eligible for free school meals. This means that by some distance, Hammersmith & Fulham is the local authority where religious selection has the biggest impact socio-economically.

However, I’m afraid that’s where my sympathy ends. What parents who complain about being excluded from faith schools don’t understand is that the reason they’re above average — which is why they want to send their children to them in the first place — is precisely because of their religious ethos. To a great extent, that ethos depends upon being able to reserve a majority of their places for children of a particular faith. It follows that if the schools in question adopted a ‘fair’ admissions policy, i.e. admitted children of all faiths and none, they’d lose their distinctive ethos and become more bog standard. In effect, if the faith schools did what these mothers are asking and adopted ‘fair’ admission arrangements, they wouldn’t want to send their children to them.

As a matter of fact, in 2009 the House of Commons Research Library concluded that any difference in academic performance between faith schools and other schools is solely due to the different intakes of each school, which, it said, is ‘due to parental self-selection and selection methods used by some faith schools.’ This conclusion has been reinforced since by Steve Gibbons and Olmo Silva whose 2011 paper ‘Faith Primary Schools: Better Schools or Better Pupils?’ found that ‘pupils progress faster in Faith primary schools, but all of this advantage is explained by sorting into Faith schools according to preexisting characteristics and preferences.’ Even the Christian think tank Theos, in their recent report More than an Educated Guess: Assessing the evidence on faith schools concluded that ‘The research seems to support the claim that students in faith schools, generally do fare better academically than their counterparts in non-faith schools. At the moment, the body of evidence appears to suggest this is probably primarily the outcome of selection processes.’

As for ethos, it’s quite clear that schools can have a strong religious ethos without religiously selecting any pupils. Many Church of England schools don’t select any pupils, and yet still retain their ethos. The Diocese of London is in fact encouraging all its new schools to be fully open, telling The Telegraph last year that open admissions are not at all diluted in their ethos: ‘Their Christian values are written through them like a stick of rock’.

So the argument made by Mr Young that religious schools do better due to their ethos and this ethos is only possible through religious selection is wrong on both counts.

But, of course, the arrangements aren’t in the least bit unfair. The two mums who have started this campaign claim the reason it’s wrong for faith schools to discriminate in this way is because they’re funded by the state and, as such, shouldn’t prioritise the children of some taxpayers over others. But it’s inevitable that all state schools will discriminate in favour of some taxpayers. Generally speaking, secular schools prioritise those children who live closest to their gates. Aren’t they being equally ‘unfair’, given that those parents who live outside the catchment areas are also taxpayers? If it’s ‘unfair’ to prioritise one set of taxpayers over another, then all schools are guilty of the same sin.

The important thing to consider when devising school admission policies is, of course, what can be done to minimise unfairness within the system. What any sensible planner of a school admissions system must do is try to minimise any unfairness.

Mr Young is absolutely right that catchment areas often lead to segregation by house prices going up around popular schools, and there are no perfect solutions. But the evidence shows consistently that religious selection causes more socio-economic selection than almost anything else – ending such selection would no doubt reduce socio-economic segregation overall.

And this is to say nothing of the fact that religious segregation also, uniquely, is a direct cause of both religious and ethnic segregation. With much evidence out this year already on the need for ethnically mixed education, Mr Young should be mindful that socio-economic segregation is not the only issue.

A better argument the women could make is that the percentage of places available at faith secondary schools in the borough is higher than the percentage of borough residents who share those faiths. They sort of make this argument when they claim that ‘almost half’ of the schools in Hammersmith and Fulham are faith schools.

In fact, only three of the 11 secondary schools in Hammersmith and Fulham reserve a majority of their places for children of a particular faith, all of them Christian. That’s 27 per cent. When did 27 per cent become ‘almost half’? And even if it was ‘almost half’ that wouldn’t be a knockdown argument since, according to the 2001 census, 64 per cent of the borough’s population describe themselves as ‘Christian’.

As we have seen, five of the eleven schools in Hammersmith and Fulham religiously select to some degree. Mr Young has discounted the school that will select half of places and the one that selects a quarter.

It’s inexplicable that Mr Young quotes the 2001 Census instead of the 2011 Census, where 54% of borough residents said they were Christian. But regardless of that, Census figures record a much looser cultural affiliation as opposed to anything else. More informative is to look at Church attendance, which now nationally stands at 6% of the adult population, or 4-5% of the parent-age population. Compare that to the 23% of places in Hammersmith and Fulham that are selected on regular faith attendance – soon to go up when Fulham Boys School opens – and perhaps the disparity becomes a lot clearer.

The fundamental point missed by those who campaign against faith schools is that Christians are taxpayers too and many of them want their children to attend schools with a Christian ethos surrounded by children who share their faith. If all schools became secular, most of these parents would be forced to send their children to secular schools and that would be no more ‘fair’ than forcing secular parents to send their children to faith schools. It strikes me that the most liberal and tolerant position is to allow those taxpayers who want to send their children to faith schools to continue to do so.

It’s actually not the case that very many parents at all pick a school based on religion. One survey a few years ago asked parents to pick their top three factors from a list of twelve for choosing which school to send their children to, and only 9% picked religion. Performance was far and away the most important factor, with location, facilities, class sizes and curriculum also being important. In June the Westminster Faith Debates asked something similar and got similar results. ‘Ethical values’ was considered important by 23% of respondents, although not every respondent who picked this would have meant religious values by this; just 5% picked ‘Grounding of pupils in a faith tradition’ and 3% picked ‘Transmission of belief about God’.

All our Campaign advocates is opening up admissions to state funded religious schools. As we have already discussed, this does not mean ending the schools’ religious ethos. Many religious people including many Christians are motivated by their faith in support of the reform we put forward, and there is widespread public support.

When an oversubscribed ‘faith’ school in an area religiously selects, not only does that mean that that school’s intake will all be of one religion, perhaps one ethnicity, and in all probability socio-economically unrepresentative of the wider area; it also has a knock-on impact on all neighbouring schools, depriving pupils at those schools a chance to have friends of that faith, ethnicity or background. In other words, religiously selective schools cannot be considered in isolation as they have system-wide impact. The pros and cons of religious selection must be considered in light of this impact.

Of course Christians are taxpayers too, and of course some of them want their children to attend religiously segregated schools. But different taxpayers will always be making competing and incompatible demands on what their taxes are spent on (other demands might be for faith-based hospitals, as is the case in other countries, or in times gone by, school admissions policies that directly segregate on race or class), with no-one gaining an automatic right to have their wishes fulfilled. It is through democratic and civic participation that society decides how best to allocate these limited funds, and we hope this will be done based on an analysis of the benefits and harms of doing so. We do not think that taxes should fund religiously selective schools because of the religious, ethnic and socio-economic segregation their admissions policies cause, and it is for this reason that we campaign for change.