The London Oratory School has been found to have broken broken an unprecedented 105 aspects of the School Admissions Code. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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The London Oratory is just the latest faith school to use religion to exclude poor pupils

The Roman Catholic state school – which was attended by two of Tony Blair’s children and where Nick Clegg’s son is currently a pupil – has been censured for using a faith-based entry system to cherrypick white, privileged pupils.

The facts of the London Oratory case on which the Office of the Schools Adjudicator ruled yesterday speak for themselves. The Roman Catholic state school in Fulham, west London, with a student body that is disproportionately rich and white, has broken an unprecedented 105 aspects of the School Admissions Code over the last two years.

Postcodes have played a significant role in the Oratory’s admissions, with all but eight of the 104 local applicants to the school unsuccessful. Those who had spent at least three years arranging flowers or singing hymns at their local church saw their children advantaged. Prospective parents, meanwhile, were not only asked to prove that their child had been baptised but that they had been too, and were in many cases also indirectly required to divulge confidential information like whether or not they were married.

Little persuasive advocacy is therefore needed to show that the Oratory’s breaches of school admissions rules are of grave concern. The biggest injustice here, however, is not that this particular taxpayer-funded school has systematically shut out students from socioeconomically disadvantaged, and frequently ethnic minority, backgrounds. It is not even that the Oratory is a shameless offender, guilty of the highest levels of procedure breaches we have ever seen. It is that - from the Jewish Yesedey Hatorah school in Hackney, which requires prospective applicants to dress modestly and come from Charedi homes where TV and the internet are considered to be immoral, to the Muslim Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham, which asks parents whether they have undertaken the Hajj, to the Oratory - blatantly unfair admissions practices are all too common in schools of every religion and denomination, every year, in every part of the country.

As the Oratory case all too clearly demonstrates, religious schools’ admissions policies are not just unfair because they exclude children whose parents don’t happen to be of a certain religion. A map meticulously put together by the “Fair Admissions Campaign” proves beyond doubt that there is a correlation between religious selection and socioeconomic privilege, showing that religious schools admit significantly fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than other schools. Recent data suggest that Church of England schools take 10 per cent fewer free school meal pupils than they are expected to, rising to 25 per cent for Muslim schools and 61 per cent for Jewish schools. Just six per cent of Oratory students, meanwhile, qualify for this marker of socioeconomic disadvantage, a figure that makes it even more exclusive than other Catholic schools both locally and nationally.

Those who doubt that correlation reflects causation here should consider that satisfying religious admissions criteria can be expensive and time-consuming, and is thus naturally the preserve of better-off parents who have the time and money to jump through the hoops. They also have the time and inclination to attend their local church and help out with its activities. As these religious schools then benefit from the good results that privileged pupils are more likely to obtain, they attract more and more privileged parents looking to get their children into the best local school. We thus see the development of a vicious cycle which comprehensively locks poorer children, who are disproportionately from ethnic minorities, out of the faith school system.

We believe that our state schools should be open to all, regardless of who they are or where they come from. We also believe that it is important that all schools reflect the diversity of the rich, multicultural society in which we live, not only because it is unfair to exclude on the basis of religion, belief and ethnicity, but because evidence shows that well-integrated schooling boosts tolerance, trust and understanding of others. We strongly welcome yesterday’s ruling as a positive step towards ensuring that these objectives are met, but note that, as the Oratory considers referring this verdict to Judicial Review, neither this battle nor the broader fight for educational equality are over. We will continue to push strongly against religious and socioeconomic selection in all our schools, as this is a struggle that Britain’s children cannot afford us to lose.

Richy Thompson is Faith Schools and Education Campaigner at the British Humanist Association

Richy Thompson is Faith Schools and Education Campaigner at the British Humanist Association

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Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is even further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.