BY ANDREW M BROWN
REPORTS in the media that schools of a religious character are failing to adhere to the law on admissions are "seriously misleading", the Catholic Education Service has said.
The Government asked the Schools Adjudicator Sir Philip Hunter to investigate schools' admissions procedures after examples emerged of a small number of schools asking for parental donations or looking at marriage certificates. His interim report found that half of 3,500 faith schools, foundation schools and academies those schools which control their own admissions were breaking an admissions code.
The CES, an agency of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said that most of the breaches were administrative, and not, as some reports had suggested, deliberate.
Oona Stannard, chief executive of the CES, said media coverage of the investigation "does not accurately represent the experience of the Catholic Church", nor did it match the discussions the CES had conducted with Sir Philip.
Miss Stannard said the CES wanted "to help schools better understand the School Admissions Code and its technicalities" and "Sir Philip is right when he says that any potential non-compliance ... was not wilful disregard of the law, but administrative confusion". The CES believes the admissions system is "working well".
Sir Philip found that most breaches of the admissions code concerned technical or administrative issues and "there was nothing that led me to believe that these schools were intentionally trying to select".
In his interim report, he said: "Actually what most of [the breaches] were about was a whole lot of problems about definitions such as schools failing to define distance. There were also issues about supplementaty information forms and schools asking things they shouldn't ask." It is against the rules for schools to ask questions about a pupil's background, such as the parents' occupations.
Sir Philip is confident that the problems will be addressed in time for next year's school applications. His full report will be published next month.
Mgr Vladimir Felzrnann, coordinator of schools' chaplains in the Archdiocese of Westminster, said that in practice it. was difficult for schools to observe every technicality of the legislation on admissions. "It's as murky as old boots," Mgr Felzmann said. "But you have got to have a process. These hoops parents have to go through, they do actually work. And the Church as prophet is more attractive to people than the Church as priest.
The chairman of the bishops' education department. Archbishop Vincent Nichols has defended vigorously the right of Catholic schools to control their own admissions.
hi a speech in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle the archbishop said that some had found it "politically expedient" to highlight a perceived "unfair advantage" of Catholic schools "pickingtheir pupils to their own advantage. He said the best way forCatholic schools to defend their rights was to be seen to follow legal requirements even in technical details. -We must not be in a situation in which there are aspects of our admissions policies which are covert," he said. "We must follow legal requirements... This is the best way of defend ing our rights and maintaining the proper areas of discretion which we have in law.
As for the people who attacked the rights of Catholic schools on the grounds that they are discriminatory. he said: "Is it discrimination for the law to respect the fundamental rights of parents, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, with regard to their religious belief and the education of their children? I think not. How can it be an unjust discrimination for a community to work in full public partnership with the Government in pursuit of such a fundamental right for families?"
Archbishop Nichols believes that opponents of schools of a religious character "simply want to remove all traces of religious belief from public services and society".
The archbishop echoed the point made by Pope Benedict on his visit to Australia, when he said: "There are many today who claim that God should be left on the sidelines and that religion and faith, while fme for individuals, should either be excluded from the public forum altogether or included only in the pursuit of limited pragmatic goals.
'This secularist vision seeks to explain human life and shape society with little or no reference to the Creator. But in reality, like every ideology, secularism imposes a world view. If God is irrelevant to public life, then society will be shaped in a Godless image, and debate and policy covering the public good will be driven more by consequences than by principles grounded in truth.
"Turning our back on the Creator's plan provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order."