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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle