The London Oratory School has been found to have broken broken an unprecedented 105 aspects of the School Admissions Code. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser