Page 9, 11th April 2008

11th April 2008
Page 9
Page 9, 11th April 2008 — A law unto themselves?

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A law unto themselves?

4 F aith schools, a law unto themselves," screamed the Independent last week; "Schools named and shamed," announced the Guardian.

Yes, the nation's 7.000 state church schools (plus 40 or so Jewish and two Muslim ones) are under fire over admissions again.

Barely a week has gone by this year without another Government Minister or think tank attacking religious schools. Even their supporters don't make things any better with public statements supporting all the prejudices. When David Cameron said that middle-class parents had "sharp elbows" when it comes to getting their children into schools, it certainly didn't help the cause.

And last week came a survey by Ed Balls' Department for Children, Schools and Families claiming that 96 of 106 voluntary aided religious schools were breaking the admissions rules.

Six were found to be asking prospective parents for voluntary financial contributions, the worst offender being the Beis Yaakov Jewish primary school in north London, which was asking for £895 a term.

Another 58 were refusing to give priority to children in care, as demanded by law, and 13 did not admit special needs children.

Religious schools were also found to be breaching the code by interviewing parents, a practice now banned, asking about their marital status or occupation, and only allowing in children of the school's faith.

This came on the back of a report by the education think tank Iris, which claimed that voluntary aided faith schools take fewer poor children than neighbouring secular schools. As an unnamed local authority official told the Independent: "They're doing it to get richer kids and better results it's as simple as that." (It has to be pointed out that local authorities have a vested interest in attacking voluntar)' aided schools, which have undermined their power by opting out of their control.) So what is the truth? Are faith schools fixing it so that only "Brahmin" offspring are allowed in, or is this Ed Balls playing to the gallery of the 100,000 or so parents whose children did not get into their preferred school?

David McFadden is headmaster of the London Oratory in Fulham, inner London's top comprehensive by exam results. The school became the focus of (rather unwanted) national attention in the 1990s when Tony and Cherie Blair sent their sons there (controversially, as they lived across town in Islington). The school now has an admissions problem that most would envy.

"We have 160 places and we had 700 applicants for those places last year," Mr McFadden says. "You're stuck if you don't have stringent criteria."

One criterion is that the parents are regular churchgoers and the child is baptised. But so popular are the likes of the Oratory that there have been suggestions that atheist couples are baptising their children late to get them into good schools.

"Some of the press called it the Year Five epiphany," says Mr McFadden. "We can't verify large swathes of data but we check Mass attendance both on Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation, as well as observance of all the sacramentals. We insist on original documents and observe Canon Law, which insists on children being baptised in the first three to four months, except in certain cases where the circumstances have been explained by the parish priest."

A priest connected to a London school agrees that the "pushy posh parents" image is a myth. "There's no way that middle-class parents use sharper elbows for Catholic schools," he says. "A way to look at it is by looking at the number of assisted school meals, which are pretty much the same for Catholic schools and state schools."

But he adds: "There has been a move away from specifying weekly Mass attendance and at the moment the admissions criteria are only a baptismal certificate and a reference form signed by a priest. It's difficult for a priest to take a legal stand where he can absolutely say that they don't come to Mass, especially if he has a large parish and large Sunday congregations. After all, they may come to Mass occasionally and that's enough. Priests do sign the form, even if they are not sure about the person's attendance. Priests are only human after all."

But, he says, that particular problem lies in a lack of attention to Canon Law.

"Priests will baptise children without checking with Canon Law," he says, "which requires parents to show a 'reasonable desire to practise' and a lot of parents will have their children baptised to get their foot in the door. It happens.

"I once had a child of 10 years whose father insisted that the child wanted to convert. The child went through a year of classes, learning about the faith and was received into the Church. The minute that child was in a Catholic secondary school, he wasn't seen in church again.

"The problem is the line that you take on the sacrament, whether you only baptise the children whose parents are familiar to you, where you know that they have a 'reasonable desire to practise' rather than just baptising anyone who comes in the door.

"Of course there are others who say that no, you should baptise whenever someone asks you and disregard Canon Law because at least a baptism is better than no religion at all."

"At the Oratory you rarely come across people who try to cheat," David McFadden says. "You get the odd ones every year with late baptisms, but the interview gave us a chance to talk to people and gauge their situations."

It's ironic that the allegations of fake baptisms come from the same people who did away with parental interviews, which weeded out fakes, based on the premise that they favoured the well-off; initially the Oratory stood its ground and won a law case, but the Government has since closed the loophole.

Instead the Oratory and other schools look at other criteria, such as "parish involvement". This, Mr McFadden explains is "where both parents and children show a regular commitment to parish life, and we look at the duration. After that we ask whether they have fulfilled their obligation to Catholic education thus far."

Nevertheless, some maintain that the problem is that, whatever criteria schools set, middle-class parents will be able to keep one step ahead. Indeed, if the Government were to succeed in forcing Catholic schools to take 10 per cent non-Catholics, it seems fairly likely that those attending the top schools will turn out to be deeply middle-class as well.

"We've been getting pressure from the education authority and other schools to be less stringent," Mr McFadden concludes. "The code's changed again and its getting a lot more difficult to maintain a strong admissions policy."

This is why the Government is pushing for a lottery system that effectively eliminates schools'

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