An Unholy Mess? You Bet!

Posted by Simon Goulden on 23 Nov 2015

The anti faith based school drum beats ever louder and leading the band, as could be expected, is the British Humanist Association (BHA).  They offer to the public three nominally separate organisations: themselves, the Accord coalition and the Fair Admission Campaign (FAC), but the suspicion that they are all really pretty much the same group of activists, wearing different hats, is only fuelled by them sharing the same contact address. ‘And’, you might ask, ‘so what?’

They/ it recently published a report, entitled ‘An Unholy Mess‘, which seeks to show how faith based schools are deliberately flouting the school admissions rules. As you might expect, the language used in the report and the subsequent press release, pulls no punches. ‘We have been aware for some time, as has almost everyone else involved in education, that the system by which schools religiously select their pupils is not fit for purpose. This report confirms that beyond all doubt.’ So says Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, in his comments. As someone else once said, under somewhat different circumstances, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he”.

So how did they do it? In June 2014 as the tide of objections from the FAC was reaching its crescendo (more of that anon), they surveyed the admissions policies of the 70 religiously selective state secondary schools located in local authorities where the local authority’s name starts with the letter ‘B’.  They also decided to look at seven other schools, namely three of the four religiously selective schools in Hammersmith and Fulham, because, in their words: ‘previous work suggested that this is the most troublesome local authority’. Troublesome to whom, you might wonder?  Is their language that of dispassionate research or biased bullying? I leave you to decide.

Of course, you might feel that this research was not entirely random, even though they claim that they just started at the top of the alphabet and there were no local authorities starting with ‘A’. So why, you might enquire, not just make a random choice of letters? Could it have been that ‘B’ local authorities included Barnet and Brent?  Would ‘P’ local authorities have been any better, including Plymouth, Portsmouth and Peterborough? We will never know.

As you probably know by now, 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 the BHA and FAC did just that, lodging objections to the arrangements of, what they claim to be, a representative sample of nearly 50 religiously selective secondary schools. With rulings on all bar one of those objections completed, the report claims that OSA identified ‘well over a thousand Code breaches, with near-universal non-compliance amongst schools’. The report’s findings appear to 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 some religious selection criteria, the report claims that ‘the number of children who are unfairly losing out on places is significant’.

What the report does not say – and why would it – is that the number of cases referred to the Office of School Adjudicator (OSA) reached an unprecedented level in the summer after receiving over 80 cases in the final days when an objection to admission arrangements could be made. The submission of these ‘late’ cases – and some of them were eye wateringly late - resulted in many being carried forward to the new school year. Indeed the number of cases brought increased by 66% over the previous year and the budget for the OSA was vastly exceeded. It is not difficult to see why. One can only imagine the conversation that the head of the OSA, Dr Elizabeth Passmore, might have had with the Treasury in reviewing her budget for the year. As her annual report notes, with commendable understatement: ‘One national campaign group submitted four objections early in the period when objections are usually made and a further 74 on 30 June, the last day for lodging objections. Of these, 27 were withdrawn before being recorded as a case, but 47 remained to be determined. In most of these cases, the objections have typically been partially upheld as the schools have not met the general requirements of the Code, for example, because they do not include a final tie-breaker in the arrangements, or the supplementary information form asks for information that is not required to apply the oversubscription criteria or by asking for information that is specifically prohibited, for example, personal details about parents and families ‘.

Now, if you look carefully at the Local Authorities chosen (and some other schools the BHA chose to include), you might form an opinion about exactly how random was the selection? You might also wonder why, given the rigour of the BHA’s process, over 36% of their objections were withdrawn? It is instructive to plough through the 120 pages of the report to see exactly what was the objection, what was decided and the BHA’s objections about the adjudication when, as they quite often did, the OSA did not agree with the BHA.

Let me be clear: when a school deliberately sets out to obfuscate, confuse or bamboozle parents, I can have no sympathy if an objection is brought. But I believe those cases are very few and far between. Where schools which are their own admissions authorities have made genuine minor mistakes – and despite the most recent Admissions Code being shorter, it certainly is not clearer – the errors are almost always swiftly corrected when pointed out to them, over 1,000 times. That is how it should be.

The challenge is that the media are always hungry for the ‘man bites dog’ story. The good news about faith based schools – such as their Key Stage 2 SATs results recently published – goes unremarked. Our challenge, as always, is to take the initiative proactively, rather than reactively. After all, the parents of some 1.2 million children cannot all be wrong.

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