Thursday, 3 February 2011

Skewing Faith Schools

In November 2010 Ian Craig the head of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) made some startling claims about faith schools in a press conference.  He was quoted in The Guardian as stating the following:
Speaking at the publication of the tribunal's annual report, Craig said: "We are bothered by the complexity of some faith schools' points systems. We have come across points that benefit white middle-class areas and don't benefit the immigrant children in the community." He said the issue affected all faith groups, but predominantly Christian schools because these outnumber other faith schools.
"We haven't found schools are deliberately skewing their intake, but our view is that this has been the effect. In some cases the faith schools are measuring parents' commitment to the church over and above the number of times a family attend church. Is it a measure of a parent's Christianity if they are bell-ringers at their church? In working-class areas, there might not be the option to do this."
Not surprisingly The Guardian’s headline bellowed:

Faith school admissions 'unfair to immigrants’

I found this disturbing. I’m vice-chair of a Church of England primary school and have in the past been chair of another such school. If there was something wrong with our admissions policy I wanted to know about it. So I downloaded the tribunal’s annual report and read it page by page looking for the evidence. To my surprise, apart from some rather generalised points, I could find few specifics to back up Craig’s claim.

So I phoned the OSA and spoke to one of the members of staff. I asked for specific details and examples to stand up the claims. I also wanted to know how many schools were involved. The first response was to say that it was a press conference and you know what the press are like. I pointed out that these were attributed quotes and I was concerned to see the evidence supporting the claims.

Eventually I was told that permission would need to be sought before further information could be released. I explained it was not unreasonable to expect evidence to back up such sweeping statements and was assured I would receive a call in the next couple of days. I took the member of staff’s name and waited for a call, it never came. To be honest I had a lot going on so didn’t follow up my enquiry.

Then today I read that Ian Craig has been questioned by the Commons Education Committee and criticised for the claims he made last November. The BBC reports:
Appearing before a committee of MPs on Wednesday, Dr Craig was accused of overstating the extent of the problem.
He was taking questions from members of the Commons Education Committee on the Office for Schools Admissions annual report, which was published in November.
Damian Hinds, Conservative MP for East Hampshire, asked Dr Craig to clarify how many of the cases his office had ruled on related to church schools' admissions codes.
Dr Craig said 45 of the 151 cases last year related to "own admissions" faith schools, of which 23 related to supplementary information forms and 12 related to the "clarity and complexity" of the criteria.
"So that's 12 or 23 out of 6,753 religious schools in this country," Mr Hinds said.
"Can I make a request that in next year's report, given the publicity that extended to this year's report, that the Office makes strenuous additional efforts to put into context the extent of this problem and the extent to which there is not a problem, clearly, in the vast, vast majority of schools."
"I'm very happy to take that on board," Dr Craig replied and said he had already written himself a note to that effect for the next report.
But he stood by his concerns that church school entrance criteria needed to be objective and clear.
Now I want to be clear that I am against any malpractice when it comes to school admissions. Any such poor practice needs to be challenged and addressed by the appropriate authorities. The church above all should be a model of best practice in this area, it is part of our witness to the wider community.

However, I also expect that the person heading the OSA, the body charged with adjudicating cases of potential malpractice, would speak and act in an impartial manner. If criticism is to be made, I expect Mr Craig to be able to back up his criticisms with facts and figures. I also expect such criticism to be proportionate.

Not surprisingly the usual suspects were out in force following the OSA press conference, continuing their campaign against faith schools. Heading the charge was the Accord CoalitionEkklesia ran the story under the headline ‘Faith schools criticised for skewing admissions towards better-off’. But it seems a more appropriate headline would have been ‘a handful of faith schools may have inadvertently skewed their admissions policies towards the better off.’ Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

Update: The British Humanist Association has posted an article based on Craig's Commons Education Committee appearance yesterday which  continues to misrepresent the situation. I am interested to know why they make no mention of the state schools with admissions policies criticised by the OSA?


Robert said...

I'm not sure what the situation is regarding admissions policy, but an excellent RC secondary school nearby was closed some years ago because they weren't getting enough kids from RC families. I was at an ecumenical meeting where I heard one of the priests on the governing body say that 'They were getting too many Sikhs and people like that'. I vey much hope that sort of thing isn't general!

The Church Mouse said...

Well put. It is very disappointing how this has been jumped on by the usual suspects. The issue of 'selection by the back door' came up a few years ago when Ruth Kelly was the education secretary, except it had nothing to do with faith schools at the time. It is a shame that these people are more interested in bashing faith schools than in more important issues, such as standards.