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