Bishop of St Albans speaks in debate on school admissions

On 8th September 2016, Lord Lucas led a short debate on the question to Her Majesty’s Government: “what plans they have to support parents in navigating schools’ admissions arrangements”. The Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, contributed to the debate. 

StAlbans171115The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for bringing this Question to the House for debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely normally takes the lead on these matters but he is unable to be here today, so I want to make just a few comments. The subject of admissions is a complex one. As a child’s education is so vital and important, not surprisingly it often leads to impassioned responses. That can be true of the subject of admission to church schools, on which I know that several Members of this House have expressed opinions in the past. Before I turn directly to the topic of faith-based admissions, which your Lordships will not be surprised I wish to address, I would like briefly to set out some points by way of context.

It is important to recognise the role that Church of England schools play in the lives of their families and the wider community. Around 1 million children across the UK are educated in Church of England schools that reflect the diversity of their local areas. In many rural areas Church of England schools form an integral part of a local rural community. Indeed, I saw that yesterday when making a visit to one of our schools in the diocese in Bedfordshire. It is also important to recognise that many parents want and positively choose for their children the vision and ethos that underpin our schools. The Church of England’s vision for education is that every child should have fullness of life and enjoy academic success as well as moral, spiritual and personal development. Sometimes, that is missed. We hear complaints from people who object to Church of England schools, not praise from those who value them.

By way of context, I hope that the House understands that the majority of Church of England schools actually have no faith-based admissions criteria. Church of England schools exist to serve the whole community, not a select faith group. The make-up of the student body tends to be representative of the wider community. Church of England schools have as many pupils on free school meals as the national average, for example, while schools operating in areas with a high population of a religious minority tend to reflect that. A substantial number of Church of England schools have more than 80% intake from the Muslim community. Where faith-based admissions criteria exist, they apply only when the school is oversubscribed and they tend to feature only in areas where alternative provision already exists.

Of course some people have no objection to the principle of schools that embody a Christian ethos but who strongly object to the idea of faith-based admissions criteria. They argue that such schools increase social division and tend to benefit the middle classes. I probably do not need to tell the House that those criticisms exist within the Church of England as well as without. The reality is that there is no silver bullet when it comes to achieving a fair admissions policy. Research shows that parents who are the most affluent and best connected stand the best chance of getting through the admissions policy, whatever is put in place. Research also shows that those parents are much more likely simply to have bought a house in their desired catchment than to attend church, for example, in order to get their child into their desired school. Where faith-based admissions exist, at least they allow students to attend from beyond the immediate and potentially sometimes more affluent catchment area.

On the issue at hand, helping people to navigate school admissions arrangements, I am grateful for many of the suggestions that have been made, with interesting points not least from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It is clear that some schools, including Church of England schools, have in the past failed in their duty to provide clear admissions information to parents. The report from the British Humanist Society in the Fair Admissions Campaign called An Unholy Mess identified technical and minor errors in how a number of Church of England schools administered their admissions policy. Examples of errors included forgetting to name the feeder school or failing to have an effective tie-breaker between two applicants living equidistant from the school. It is worth pointing out that none of the errors identified by the BHA in Church of England schools were specific to the issue of faith-based admissions. It is clear that similar areas would be found in any school which acts as its own admissions authority, whether religious or not. However, it is clear from the research that many schools find the process of admissions difficult to administer and this will inevitably make it harder for parents. I believe that the answer is not to attack schools for their failures but to ask how they can be better supported. A rapidly changing landscape of education with its greater focus on autonomy and independence for schools in the academisation process will only increase the challenges for schools in providing clear admissions criteria and advice.

With an increasing number of schools becoming their own admissions authority for the first time, it is more likely that errors could be made. With this in mind the School Admissions Code, which is available to parents, would benefit from revision and clarification to ensure that both schools and parents are confident in navigating admissions arrangements. It is also important that the Office of the Schools Adjudicator is strengthened and well equipped to prioritise admission complaints that have a basis in legality rather than having to waste its time on complaints that arise only from ideological objections to particular admissions criteria.

As I say, there is no silver bullet for making admissions fair and open to all, but I hope that the Minister agrees that the future lies in all stakeholders working together to help schools to improve their administrative processes so that parents, wanting the very best for their children, are better equipped to navigate what can be a difficult, confusing and sometimes puzzling system.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab) [extract]: I note what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said about schools themselves needing some assistance with the code, but parents also need help interpreting the code, and that is the nub of the problem. Every parent, and I am one, knows of the tension associated with doing their best to ensure that their children secure a place at the school of the parents’ choice. Around 80% are successful in that venture, which is commendable. However, when they are not, they must, at the very least, have the knowledge that they were competing on a level playing field….

…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has already referred to the Fair Admissions Campaign and the British Humanist Association survey that was carried out. It demonstrated that there are many schools with intakes more favourable than would be expected given their location, and that these are often faith schools or other schools that control their own admissions. The two organisations analysed the admissions policies of a sample of faith schools and found that virtually all of them broke the admissions code in one way or another. I accept what the right reverend Prelate said: that in many case these were minor breaches. However, they were breaches none the less, and the adjudicator upheld 87% of the objections put to her in 48 schools. People have said that that is only 48 schools, but to repeat a remark I made in our debate in the Chamber in May, we are told that a sample of 1,000 can give the opinions of 60 million. Therefore, 48 schools is a valid sample, and a lot of important information was gleaned from that survey. The title of this debate is particularly apposite in the light of those findings….

…There is another issue here: no one is involved in enforcing or even monitoring the code. I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, in May whether the Government would bring forward a means of ensuring that the code was at the very least monitored. She did not give me an answer but said that the question was being looked at. Is there any update on that? The noble Baroness said,

“we are looking at whether we need to do more around compliance”.—[Official Report, 11/5/16; col. 1786.]

I hope there may be something to say. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said that one of the options was to strengthen the role of the schools adjudicator. If she was given more staff, monitoring might be an option.

 The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Lord Nash) (Con): [extract].. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned the vital role that Church schools play in this country. I pay tribute not only to that but to the important role they play in community cohesion. Some years ago, the University of York carried out a very persuasive study to show that, in fact, Church schools were the most inclusive in the country.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, requested various information. As I said, I have just taken over responsibility for this brief but I will look at his points carefully. We need to get it into context, though. Last year, the adjudicator received 218 objections, which is just 1% of schools.

The system we have in place to support parents ensures that the vast majority of children attend a school of their parents’ choice and 95% get one of their top three choices. However, as we said recently, many parents still cannot get their kids into a good school close to them, and that is partly what any reforms we come forward with would aim to improve.

In the last few years, we have made great strides in creating new places; something that I am also responsible for now. We have created 600,000 new places in the last five years and have funds in place to create another 600,000 over the next five years. We will continue to work hard to ensure that every child has access to a good education so that they can go as far as their talents and hard work can take them.

I thank all noble Lords again for their contributions to this debate.


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