Posted: Fri, 24 Apr 2020
Megan Manson says a series of recent examples from ombudsman reports demonstrate the absurdity of prioritising pupils for admissions and free transport to school on a religious basis.
When parents in England have an unresolved complaint about their local council, they can approach the local government and social care ombudsman. This includes complaints relating to schools maintained by local authorities. By looking at ombudsman investigations, we can see what sort of complaints about schools are common.
Complaints highlighting the harm caused by faith schools are sadly quite frequent.
Here are five case studies of complaints referred to the ombudsman over the last year. They illustrate the absurdity of letting schools prioritise pupils on the basis of their family's religion, the desperation of parents who just want to get their child into a good school, and the problems caused by discriminating against families who aren't the 'right' faith.
The daughter who can't go to the local school where her mum works
Miss X works at St Bede's School, a Christian faith school in Redhill, Surrey. One of her three children also attends the school. In 2018, she applied for a place for her daughter, Y, to attend the school, but was refused. The reason was that Miss X does not attend any place of worship, so her daughter was given the second lowest priority in the school's admissions criteria.
In her appeal Miss X said the rejection from St Bede's had a "severe adverse impact" on her daughter. She said that because the family lives close by, the journey to school would be easier and safer for Y. She now struggles getting her three children to three separate schools every morning.
Her appeal was rejected. Read the full case.
The mum who didn't get her daughter baptised in time
Mrs X wanted her daughter to attend Blessed John Henry Newman Roman Catholic College in Oldham. Her family lives within easy walking distance of the school, and her older son had attended there – she had very understandable reasons for wanting her daughter to go there.
Like all parents who want to be considered for priority admissions in faith schools, Mrs X completed a Supplementary Information Form (SIF). Faith schools use this to get evidence about how religious a particular family is, and therefore rank them according to their priority list.
Mrs X submitted the SIF three weeks before the deadline, and said her daughter wasn't Catholic. She was being honest – her child hadn't been baptised yet.
She then had her daughter baptised three days before the deadline to submit the SIF. She didn't baptise her sooner because their priest apparently refused to baptise her daughter until they had attended church for two years. She did not receive the baptism certificate before the deadline to submit it to the school as part of the SIF.
Mrs X's daughter was rejected. Mrs X appealed, saying there wasn't space on the SIF to explain the baptism situation. In her appeal, she noted that two children who were baptised Catholic who lived further away from the school had been given places.
The appeal panel questioned why she hadn't had her son baptised, and suggested she had "only had Y baptised so she could attend the school". The appeal was rejected.
The case demonstrates the hoops parents have to jump through in order to get their child a place at a school that's within walking distance from their house, if that school happens to be a faith school. Even when parents do everything in their power to secure a place, baptised children living further away will often beat them to it. And when parents appeal, they'll frequently face accusations of feigning religiosity.
But can we really blame parents for playing a system that's unjust and unfair in the first place?
The Muslim family rejected for not being Catholics
It isn't just non-religious families who are discriminated against in faith school admissions. Members of minority faiths can suffer too.
Mr X wanted his daughter to attend St Paul's Catholic College in Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey. The school was oversubscribed and she was assigned to another school assigned as her third favourite choice ('School D').
The school prioritises baptised Catholics, but Mr X's family are Muslims. They were therefore ranked no.11 ("children of other non-Christian faiths") out of 12 on the school's order of priorities.
Mr X appealed, largely on the grounds that St Paul's Catholic College was closer to home than School D. He said this was particularly important for several reasons. His daughter had various medical conditions. The family was responsible for care of the daughter's elderly grandmother who had a number of health issues. And the family had two other children to take to school as well.
The appeal was rejected. Read the full case.
The non-religious family assigned a faith school against their wishes
Sometimes the opposite problem occurs: a family get allocated a faith school when they want a secular education for their child.
Ms F moved into her local area in Hampshire in December 2018 and applied for a place for her seven-year-old son in Year 3 at 'Q School'. This was unsuccessful and she was instead offered a place at 'W School', which turned out to be a faith school. In her appeal, Ms F explained that the faith ethos of the school was one reason why she didn't want her son to go there.
Her appeal was rejected. Read the full case.
Ms F's case is far from uncommon. The National Secular Society's 2018 Choice Delusion report revealed almost three in 10 families across England live in areas where most or all of the closest primary schools are faith schools. They often have no choice but to have their child raised in a religious tradition that they may not share. NSS research has since found that 20,000 families were assigned to faith schools in England against their preferences in September 2019.
We often hear that faith schools create more 'choice' for parents. But in cases like this, they evidently do the very opposite.
The grandma on benefits who can't get free school transport because she doesn't share the school's faith
The discrimination caused by faith schools isn't limited to their admissions policies. Another example from the ombudsman highlights the unfairness of procedures for transport to faith schools.
Local authorities can offer free transport to children attending faith schools – and bizarrely, a loophole in the Equality Act 2010 means they can refuse this transport to children attending the faith school who do not share the religion of the school.
In 2018, Ms C applied for a place at School F for her granddaughter, CC. School F happens to be a faith school, but like many parents and guardians, Ms C selected it for reasons other than its faith ethos. Initially the application was refused, but Ms C was able to successfully appeal against this.
Ms C is on benefits. She applied to Newcastle upon Tyne City Council for school transport funding and was refused. Its reasoning was that School F was not one of the three closest suitable schools to their home, and CC's place at School F had not been awarded her place on faith grounds.
When Ms C complained, the ombudsman found that had she and her granddaughter shared the faith of the school, she would have been entitled to free transport.
But the ombudsman determined Ms C hadn't been unlawfully discriminated against because of exemptions in the Equality Act.
While the ombudsman did criticise the council for operating an "inflexible" policy that did not allow for discretion, it found Ms C and CC suffered "no personal injustice". Read the full case.
Time for change
These five cases illustrate the damage faith schools cause to families and communities. They impose religion on families who don't share it, segregate communities and prevent parents from sending children to the school that's most appropriate for them. And that's why all of our schools should be equally welcoming to children from families of all faiths and none.