Pupils with certificate signed by a Catholic priest can get school place priority

Catholic schools can continue to accept a certificate signed by a priest as proof of pupils’ faith when giving them priority in admissions, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) has ruled.

The future of the Certificate of Catholic Practice, first used in 2015 to replace a range of criteria that had to be met by religious families wanting to jump the queue for Catholic schools, was cast into doubt around 15 months ago after the OSA said it was “unfair and arbitrary”.

The regulator originally said the certificate breached rules that parents must be able to “easily understand how any faith-based criteria will be reasonably satisfied”.

But the OSA has now confirmed that it has reversed its decision, meaning schools can continue to trust the certificates, which are issued at the discretion of priests and not based on any specific criteria, as proof that pupils come from “practising Catholic family” in order to satisfy admissions rules.

According to the Catholic Education Service, which last year threatened to take the government to court over the OSA’s rejection of the certificate but eventually backed down, schools have continued to use the document since it was called into question in November.

However, CES leaders say the OSA’s report backs their definition of a “practising” Catholic, which means schools can go on recognising the certificate without fear of being hauled in front of the regulator.

Throughout the review of the certificate, which has gone on for over a year, the CES argued that the certificates method was more flexible than previous requirements, such as one where parents had to prove regular Mass attendance, because it took into account families’ individual circumstances.

Prior to the introduction of of the certificates, schools were using a variety of forms and asking numerous questions of parents about whether they were Catholic.

But one headteacher who sits on the DfE’s working group on school admissions said that simply getting a priest “say you’re a jolly good egg” is “not fair enough”.

However, following the latest ruling, schools that demand the certificate will be considered to be “striving” to meet the code’s requirements, according to the OSA’s report.

Over a year ago, the OSA upheld complaints by Surrey county council about unclear admissions rules at St Paul’s Catholic college, St Michael’s Catholic primary school, Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic primary school and St Ignatius Catholic primary school.

It also ruled against St Richard Reynolds Catholic college in west London, after a case brought by a local parent and the council.

The code requires admissions practices to be “reasonable, clear, objective and procedurally fair”, and for parents to be able to easily understand how faith-based criteria can be met.

A CES spokesperson said the aim of the certificate “has always been to achieve clarity for schools and fairness for parents.

“We are extremely pleased that the OSA recognises this, referring to the certificate as a ‘great help to parents’.”