School admissions watchdog rejects ‘Catholic certificate’


The school admissions watchdog has ruled that a new certificate used to confirm a pupil is from a “practising Catholic family” when applying for a school place is “unfair and arbitrary”.

The certificate of Catholic practice was introduced by dioceses this academic year to provide a more consistent way of judging a pupil’s religious faith, replacing other methods such as attendance at mass.

But the initiative, backed by the Catholic Education Service (CES), has received a major blow after the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) upheld several complaints that the form – signed off by a priest – breaks the admissions code.

The OSA upheld objections from two councils and at least one parent on cases spanning five schools, ruling the certificate did not meet requirements for “reasonable, clear, objective and procedurally fair” admissions practices.

It also ruled that the certificate breached rules that “parents can easily understand how any faith-based criteria will be reasonably satisfied”.

The certificates are signed by parish priests and decisions can be flexible to take into account an individual’s circumstances, in contrast to previous criteria-led systems for deciding a pupil’s faith.

The vicar saying you’re a jolly good egg is not fair enough

But Rob McDonough, a headteacher who sits on the Department for Education’s working group on school admissions, said: “The vicar saying you’re a jolly good egg is not fair enough.”

But he admitted the situation at the schools was likely a “genuine mistake” that had exposed how difficult the code could be to understand.

The OSA upheld objections against 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, all brought by Surrey County Council.

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

The OSA ruled that the certificates were “in the gift of an applicant’s parish priest” and agreed with objectors who said the lack of criteria could lead to “different priests applying different measures of practice”.

Jay Harman of the British Humanist Association, which is part of the Fair Admissions Campaign, urged the government to “think very carefully” before going ahead with plans to drop the existing 50 per cent cap on religious selection, adding it would only “pave the way for far more manipulation of this kind.

Lack of criteria could lead to “different priests applying different measures of practice”

“It’s bad enough for state-funded schools to be discriminating against and dividing children on the basis of their parents’ religious or non-religious beliefs, but to do so in such an arbitrary and unaccountable way is even more unacceptable.”

The CES, which had worked with dioceses to scrap current school admissions arrangements and introduce the certificate, told Schools Week it was working out “the best way to respond to the adjudications”.

A spokesperson said the certificate ensured other inequalities within the previous system – such as when a pupil attended mass without his or her parents – were accounted for.

“This ensures that the measures used to determine Catholic practice are the same across diocesan boundaries.”

The spokesperson added the “central issue” hinged on the determination of who should decide whether a pupil was a practising Catholic. “Within the Catholic community it is accepted that priests are the correct authority.”

A spokesperson for the OSA said its decision was “binding and enforceable”.

“The admission authorities of the schools concerned must now revise their admission arrangements in line with the decision.

“They have two months from the date of the decision to do so.”

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  1. So to get into a Catholic School a child has to do what a priest tells them to do or else they cannot attend that school. Surely there are enough cases on the record, of priestly abuse of power, for this to sound very loud warning bells.

    Secondly, what happens to a student in a Catholic school who stops attending Mass? Do they have to find another school?

    Do we have freedom of religion in this country, or not? If we do, it includes being free to NOT have a religion. Should you have to pray to the correct God to be allowed into your local school?

    • Don’t speak of things you know nothing about. Weekly Mass is the minimum the Church requires. Christ asked us to hold the Eucharistic celebration in memory of Him. If we are true to Him, we will gladly comply. It’s not asking much, and the priest can objectively record it, and let the school know. Faithful parents have every right to object if they are denied a place at a Catholic school!

      • There are two difficulties here regarding certified worship. One is that it attracts hypocrites – unbelievers who attend weekly merely to get an attendance certificate which will get them priority at a faith school. Another is that true believers who cannot attend weekly for genuine reasons (eg caring, having to work on a Sunday) can’t get the necessary attendance certificates and don’t qualify for a priority place at their faith school. Such faithful parents are actually pushed aside by the hypocrites.

        • Mark Watson

          Couldn’t agree more. Locally to where I live is an excellent primary school, regarded as the best in the area. It is a CofE school and it requires parents of prospective pupils to attend weekly mass for at least a year prior to starting school (to be clear I don’t know whether this is a formal requirement, but what I do know is that there is an absolute local understanding that if you don’t go your child won’t get in). Needless to say the church is always full to the brim, however the congregation is constantly changing as the vast majority of ‘worshippers’ are parents putting in the time in order to get a place at the school, and once they get in they stop going.
          It’s seen as “just one of those things” and most people just put up with it because the reward of a school place is worth it. I see it as complete hypocrisy.
          That’s not to say I completely disagree with some entry requirements, and if a religious organisation wants to run a school it makes sense if they run it as a Catholic/CofE/Hindu/Muslim school etc. But any system which requires you to ‘prove’ you believe in something is open to abuse.

  2. A compromise would be to allow faith-ethos schools but require them to open their doors to all children without discriminating against them on grounds of faith or non-faith. There would be some element of self-selection, of course, but state schools are funded by taxpayers and shouldn’t therefore decide which taxpayers’ children have priority. And Christian schools in particular should remember that Christ said, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not.’ That means all children, not just one belonging to a particular tribe.

    • Vicky U.

      The St Richard Reynolds primary school judgement was significant in another way too because it made clear that “not Catholic” couldn’t be used as an oversubscription criterion. The Catholic church have consistently refused to open schools with just 50% faith admissions on the grounds that it would involve turning away children “on the grounds that they were Catholic”. However this judgement makes it clear that open admissions don’t discriminate against Catholics because they will be considered for the open places too.
      There was a judgement on a Catholic free school in Cornwall (st michaels?) that made the same point but it hasn’t had much coverage which is surprising as it blows the church’s main argument against opening free schools out of the water.