BY CHRISTINA WHITE
CAI HULIC schools are to lose the right to interview parents and pupils following a deal between the bishops of England and Wales and the Department for Education and Skills.
The agreement, which is effective from today, will prohibit faith schools from selecting pupils by interview after 2005. It is likely to cause an outcry among parents anxious to ensure their children receive a Catholic education.
Many Catholic state schools are already heavily over-subscribed, with nonCatholics among those chasing a limited number of places.
Under current admission procedures, Catholic schools can interview prospective pupils and their parents to gauge their commitment to Catholic faith and practice. Fifty-one of the 60 Catholic state schools in the Greater London area currently interview pupils on this basis.
But it has now emerged that the bishops have agreed to give more control on admissions to local education authorities, reneging on commitments made last year, and forbidding Catholic schools to interview applic ants. A spokeswoman for the DfES said the new school admissions code of practice will allow Church schools to interview as part of the admissions procedure only until September 2005.
She said: "It has been the practice of some Church schools to use interviews in order to ascertain faith commitment in religious schools and to determine pupils' suitability for hoarding provision.
"There have been concerns about this practice on the grounds that interviewing allows subjective assessments to inform decisions on whether pupils are offered places at a particular school."
The spokeswoman said the Government had carried out a consultation before publishing the new code. The vast majority of those responding, including the education boards of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, were in favour of ruling out interviewing," she said. "The regulations and code of practice laid before Parliament reflect the majority view in the consultation process."
She added that the new arrangements would not stop schools from using other means to inquire about the religious background of applicants, such as application forms and reference letters from priests.
In February 2002, Catholic MPs fought efforts by back benchers to eliminate faith schools selection and to impose a "quota" of nonCatholic pupils on Catholic schools through amendments to the Education Bill 2002.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham. chairman of the Catholic. Education Service (CES I.
described the attempts 1,1 interfere with selection proce dures as an "affront" to Catholic parents who had ."a right to a Catholic education for their child". He argued that Catholic parents had "struggled" for such a right and any attempt to interfere with selection would undermine the cohesiveness and success of a school built on the basis of a shared faith and values.
In a statement this week, Archbishop Nichols said he strongly defended the Catholic Church's decision to support the phasing out of interviews.
He said: "Catholic schools have a mission to serve Catholic children of every race and background. The decision to move away from interviews has been made to ensure that the admissions procedure is as transparent and fair as possible and I believe it will he successful in achieving these aims."
But critics accuse the bishops of reneging on their commitment to fight for the autonomy of Catholic schools. A priest and school governor of the Westminster diocese, who asked not to be named, said the new rules added to the ever-increasing bureau cratic burden on parish priests. "The relationship between home, school and parish is special and requires commit ment. Interviewing is efficient and effective," he said.
-This new arrangement places all the onus on the parish priest. At the end of the day, it will depend on the priest's reference."
The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sent his sons to the London Oratory, a heavily over-subscribed school that interviews over 1,000 appli cants a year. Headmaster John McIntosh has already criticised the new code of practice, which he claims will make the admissions procedure less reliable.
"In many cases, parents would be relying on the refer ence-writing skills of their priests and there would certainly be a significant rise in the number of appeals," he said.
Oona Stannard, director of the CES, said the bishops had consulted with each diocese's school commissioner before agreeing the change. She told the Daily Telegraph: "There are questions about the objectivity and fairness of interviews, and many parents are unhappy about their experience of them."