I used to think it was reasonable for schools backed by religious groups such as the Church of England to expect some say on admissions in return. But after six months watching my local church school, I’ve changed my mind.

The school altered their admissions without consultation or sign-off. After I complained, they denied doing it before conducting a search into my background. On scratching the surface, I found a festering mess that no one was prepared to take responsibility for, or to clean up.

As every child knows, if you cannot be trusted to behave responsibly, then it could be time to have your freedoms removed. This is not an isolated case. Indeed, Schools Week has reported ‘near-universal non-compliance’ when it comes to admissions at faith schools.

The individual school in question has long had a regular church attendance test as part of their entry procedures. Parents must attend church regularly for three years to pass. But during the pandemic the school changed the rules.

Periods when a place of worship was ‘compulsorily closed’ became exempt from the church attendance test. This was well-intentioned but badly misguided because some local religious authorities kept their places of worship shut for much longer than necessary.

In our village, for example, the local church was not fully reopened for over a year, meaning it was closed for three times longer than the Government insisted. But even though regular services were suspended, the church was not ‘compulsorily closed’.

As a result, it became impossible for local families to pass the school’s test. When I queried this, the school denied there was a problem.I nstead, as I subsequently found out, they scraped social media (including a private Facebook group) to dig into my life.

When I pressed the point, the school finally admitted they had altered their rules without
consultation. The change had not even been signed off by their governing body. Unfortunately, this cock-up was followed by another cover up and then another cock-up.

 Religious tests are at odds with serving ‘the whole community’

While the school changed their historic 2022 admissions rules, thereby concealing the original source of the error, they made no change to their live arrangements
for 2023 admissions. So, it remained impossible even for committed church-goers to pass their test.

Eventually, I felt forced to flag the problem with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. They quickly declared the arrangements ‘unclear’, ‘irrational’ and ‘unreasonable’ as well as ‘likely to have the effect of inadvertently excluding some faithbased applicants’.

My complaint was only about the school’s procedures. It did not mention my children. Yet the school still chose to pass on irrelevant personal information about my daughter to the adjudicator in an attempt to obfuscate. To this day, they have failed to apologise.

Of course, this story is about just one school, one church and a few parents. But as someone who works in higher education, it shocks me. Universities have much more autonomy on admissions than schools, but they have been banned from having religious tests since
Victorian times.

The Office for Students would come down like a ton of bricks on any institution that behaved like this school has. Universities breaching admissions rules face a lower tuition fee cap that could put some out of business.

The story also reveals a chasm between the reasons why religious bodies profess to deliver education and the reality. The Church of England say their educational ‘vision is for the common good of the whole community’. Religious tests are clearly at odds with this.

Academics tend to direct their ire at the few areas of the country that retain the 11+, but the bigger school admissions scandal is more widespread. There are 40 times more faith-based schools in England than there are grammar schools (though not all impose religious tests).

If church schools are incompetent at running their own admissions, it reflects badly on the schools but also on their parent religious bodies.

Perhaps the time has come to limit their autonomy to decide who can cross their hallowed portals.

PLEASE NOTE: Schools Week presented the allegations of inappropriate social media use to the school’s governing body. They declined to comment, but say they will comply fully with any formal investigation.

The school wishes to draw attention to the Adjudicator’s statement: “I do not believe the school to have intentionally set out to make a change which has had these effects.

End

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