Hallelujah! Ring the bells for a place at your (not so) local school

Fiona Millar's picture

The first in an occasional series looking at how school admissions work in practice...

Following my post yesterday on changes to the School Admissions Code, I thought it might be interesting to start looking at how some schools manage to manipulate their intakes and whether these practices are compliant with the government’s regulations.

A recent adjudication into admission at the Coloma Convent School in South London is a useful starting point. Coloma is a very successful and popular girls' Catholic School. Objections to its admissions criteria were made by a parent and the local Diocese on two grounds; that applicants were awarded points depending on how soon after birth the child was baptised ( with points allocated to different time spans) and points were awarded to both parent AND child for service to the Church or wider parish. The objectors argued that selecting pupils in this way was unfair and discriminatory.

The detail of what the school was doing is here in a set of admissions criteria that run to five pages (there are also several supplementary forms). The Diocesan guidance makes it clear that if a school is oversubscribed, frequency of attendance at mass should be used as an admissions criteria but that “further information regarding involvement in parish community life must not be sought”. The Admissions Code says faith schools should have regard to the guidance of the Diocese.

The Diocese argued that these criteria  could disadvantage immigrant Catholic families coming from countries where “English” type parishes don’t exist, disadvantage one parent families and parents for whom English is a additional language ( the school required justification for non service in writing) and benefit parents who had the time and inclination to work the system to their advantage. In evidence to the Adjudicator the Diocese reported that in one parish there were “100 children on a waiting list to be altar servers”

The parent argued that allocating points for rapid baptism was equally discriminatory as it ruled out lapsed Catholics and some parents (who may be working abroad for example)

The school’s case hinged on the necessity of these oversubscription criteria to benefit disadvantaged girls and provide a “good ethnic and socio-economic mix”. The alternative, it claimed, would be distance from the school which would benefit those who could afford to buy property nearby ( they could have run a lottery  -simpler and fairer - but that isn’t mentioned).

However when the Adjudicator investigated this claim, he found a rather different picture. Coloma had a lower percentage of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds than the London or it’s local authority average and a tiny number of pupils eligible for free school meals compared to the local average (3.5% compared to almost 20%) In short a complex set of criteria were ensuring its intake came from more advantaged and aspirant families.

In his judgement the Adjudicator partially upheld the complaint on the grounds that the schools oversubscription criteria has the “potential for unfairness” suggesting that the governors should review their system of awarding points for date of baptism and for parish activities.

But Coloma is not the only school using this type of convoluted admissions procedure.  Other successful and oversubscribed secondaries are using similar tactics to good effect. Take a look at the admissions criteria for this school – the Twyford Church of England Academy in Ealing. Twyford was recently highlighted in an article in the Guardian after Education Secretary Michael Gove hailed it as a “great comprehensive” school.  This year 85% of pupils achieved five A*-C including English and Maths at GCSE.

But, as the article points out,  Twyford casts its nets far beyond its local area. It takes pupils from seven authorities and 70 feeder schools.   The government’s own data sets show that the school has only 10% of pupils eligible for free schools meals – half the local authority average and much less than some other local schools (Acton High School has almost 40%)

The schools most recent Ofsted report appears to bear out the diverse but advantaged nature of its intake. The opening paragraph reads “Low numbers of students are eligible for free school meals. Nearly two thirds of students are from minority ethnic groups and the largest groups are Black Caribbean, Black African and Indian. One quarter of students are bilingual, however, there are no students at the early stages of learning English. A low proportion of students have learning difficulties or disabilities.”

In the Guardian article the head teacher Alice Hudson conceded that her school has a larger than average proportion of children who, in days gone by, would have gone to grammar schools because as she put it  "Schools that make it evident they care about academic achievement attract more able students."

But is it just the school’s ethos that helps it to attract a particular type of student, or its clever eight page admissions policy with four pages for Foundation/Christian places and four pages for World Faith/Open places and supplementary application forms  that seems to mirror the (unsatisfactory according to the OSA) procedure at Coloma, although Twyford is even more explicit about the sort of activities that will get you a place for your child.

Here is an explanation of how the points are calculated at the school; first of all children get points for attendance at C of E services or Sunday school “Up to 5 points are awarded for attendance over at least the last 5 years (one point for each year). In addition up to 5 points are awarded on the frequency/regularity of attendance over the last 5 years (Weekly 5 pts, 3 times a month 4 pts, Fortnightly 3pts, Monthly 2pts, Occasional 1pt) “

Then there are points for children “working for the Church” in a variety of ways like being a server, attending confirmation, reading lessons or taking part in youth clubs or charitable services.

And then more points for the rest of the family’s behaviour. They get awarded points based approach to church attendance plus other types of voluntary service listed below


Reader of scripture in Church,

Elected PCC member or equivalent Music Group/Choir

Flower arranging in church

Sunday school teacher/helper


Leader of intercessions/Prayer rota


House/cell Group member

Assisting with collection/counting money

Evangelism team/outreach

Youth Club/Uniform Leader/Helper

Mother's Union/equivalent women's group

Men's Group

Tea and coffee rota

Church Cleaning

Church Maintenance

Parish Magazine Editor

Bible study Group

Creche helper

Licensed to administer communion

Worship Group

Technical support

Church based outreach/charitable projects

Nor does it end there. If you get an equal number of points to another family, there is a distance based tie break based on “Deanery areas”.  However the map showing the   Deanery and Episcopal areas is displayed in the school reception so, in the unlikely event that by this point parents have even a vague idea of their chances of getting a place at this school they may also need to visit to be slightly more sure.

Are these schools a rarity in the faith community? Many religious schools are willing to take all comers and the Church of England has certainly indicated that it would like its schools to take a more open approach.

Or are they only at the tip of an iceberg of institutions exploiting their freedoms on admissions to engineer themselves a more favourable intakeand gain a competitive league table advantage on their neighbours, by forcing parents and children to jump through certain hoops and discriminating against those whose personal circumstances may prevent them offering to clean the church at the weekend?

Either way their admissions criteria don't appear to be fair, clear, objective or easy to understand (key principles of the School Admissions Code). The Office of the Schools Adjudicator has already sounded a warning shot. Maybe more people need to complain.




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Luca Salice's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 14:55

It's interesting that the Roman Catholic diocese itself disapproved of the admission criteria set by the governors. Governors were being "plus royalistes que le roi". In reality the bishop himself must have sniffed that something was hiding behind the governors' wish to uphold a Roman Catholic ethos.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 15:07

The Draft Admissions Code states that schools must not "prioritise children on the basis of their own or parents’ past or current hobbies or activities (designated faith schools may take account of religious activities, as laid out by the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination)".

It appears, then, that even under the new Code designated faith schools will still be able to "take account of religious activities" and these activities can be defined by "the body or person" who represents the religion. Does this mean that only one person need decide what these activities actually are? And if so, will the definition of "religious activities" vary from place to place?

This reminds me of the first episode of that wonderful BBC 2 series, "Rev", in which the Reverend Adam Smallbone suddenly finds his church full for Sunday services:

"But the sudden influx of worshippers isn't down to word getting out about his wonderful sermons; there's a rumour going round that the local church school is about to get a great Ofsted report. Faced with a bunch of hypocritical parents desperately vying for his attention in the hope he'll recommend their child, Adam is tempted to trade a school place for the expensive restoration of a broken stained-glass window."


Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 15:14

The current code appears to say that the school must have regard to what the Diocesan Board says when it comes to defining religious activities and in the case of the South London Diocese that should only mean attendance at church - this does leave the issue of what the tie break should be in the case of oversubscription but distance or random allocation fairer than deciding which parents have been most attentive to the cleanliness of the place of worship.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 18:11

Didn't parents take the diocese of the Cardinal Vaughan school to court because they were annoyed at the appointment of foundation governors who were acting at the behest of the diocese against parent governors to liberalise the admissions procedure and ethos to the much sought after school. So it seems a strict code is needed so there is not too much room for interpretation of flexibility in admissions criteria.

Speaking as a nominal Protestant, my childrens' local comprehensive was a CofE school but the reason many parents in the catchment area ran a mile (or more) wasn't because they were atheists, most were unaware that it was even a faith school as it was CofE in name only, but due to the low position it held in the league tables.

I would make a distinction here between Catholic and CofE schools, and in my experience while the latter was Christian lite, Catholic schools tend to be more "aggressive" in their religious ethos. Unless someone wants their children to be brought up in that faith, I cannot see why they would want to send their children to a school of that denomination no matter how good the exam results are.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 22:56

My own experience of this is second hand from a friend who admitted that she was an 'educational' catholic in order to get her children into local catholic schools which by coincidence had the best results in the area. I did not think badly of her- she was trying to do what was best for her children in a competitive world however I was quite shocked by what she had to do in order to secure her ' points' for admission purposes. Running lunch clubs for elderly catholic parishioners was one of these as well as regular mass attendance but it was the assumed contribution of her and her husband in the admissions process for her children that I could not believe. I think people think thats just the idiosyncrasies of religious institutions but surely these are still publicly funded schools with usually excellent resources so I dont understand how they get away with it.

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