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Having faith in education

Paul Vallely

My antennae twitched when the front page of my own newspaper The Independent carried a story recently saying that 'the vast majority of faith schools' are breaking the law when admitting pupils, according to government research. Some seek money from parents, others try to exclude children with special needs, others fail to give the proper priority to children in care. Shocking stuff. The trouble was that I had had a personal experience which made me wonder whether my esteemed colleagues, and their source, schools secretary Ed Balls, had got this one right.

There seems no excuse for the 13 schools who were found to have demanded a say over whether they should admit children with special needs. And I wouldn't for one moment seek to defend six schools asking for money from parents before they decide whether or not to admit children, though it was interesting to consider the defence offered by one of the schools most pilloried, a Jewish school in north London which asks parents to contribute £895 per term and which argues that Jewish schools have extra security costs to guarantee the physical safety of their children.

But these figures - 13 in one case, and six in the other - seem to fall far short of the 'vast majority' being condemned. So what had the others done? The Indy story said that 106 voluntary-aided schools had been surveyed and that 87 of them were faith schools in breach of the new statutory code on admissions - with 58 of them refusing to give priority to children in care, as demanded by law.

Two questions occurred to me here. The first was how representative of Britain's 7,000 faith schools was this sample of 106? The schools investigated were in just three boroughs: Manchester, Northamptonshire and the London Borough of Barnet. 'We have never had reason to believe that these authorities are out of line with others around the country,' said Mr Balls, which is far from the same thing as saying that there is any evidence that these areas are representative - and that projections about 'the vast majority of faith schools' are statistically valid. Moreover he elsewhere claimed that 570 schools were investigated and that 96 were found to be in breach of admissions rules - not a 'vast majority' by anybody's book.

The reason I was so suspicious is that I am chair of governors at a church school which last year fell foul of the new admissions code on a purely technical issue and I wondered how many of the schools Mr Balls was pronouncing as guilty were in the same situation. It was only last year that the new law was introduced requiring voluntary-aided schools to do what many were doing anyway - giving priority to children in care. There was a requirement to enshrine this in the schools admission code. As a church school we received advice from the diocese saying we should add a note to the top category in the policy stating this. We also received advice from the local authority saying that these children should be given their own category.

The differences seemed, if you will pardon the expression in this context, merely academic. Whatever the wording, the reality was that children in care were the top priority. We told the diocese and local authority to sort it out between them and that we'd do whatever they agreed. The trouble was they didn't agree and we found ourselves hauled before the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

The local paper got hold of the story and ran a piece accusing us of excluding poor kids and cherry-picking the brightest most middle class parents. Eventually it was all resolved and the paper had to print an apology. But the reaction of those accused by Mr Balls suggested that something similar was going on in lots of other places. One Jewish school asserted that it had been found guilty of breaching the rules for not accepting children from outside the faith (which is entirely legal). The Diocese of London said some schools appeared to be on the blacklist for saying that parents were expected to support the school's ethos. The borough of Barnet said that a quarter of Mr Ball's claims were unfounded; the remainder were relatively minor wording issues or issues where the code is unclear. It accused Mr Balls of being 'sensationalist'.

All of this would be pretty trivial were faith schools not generally under attack. Mr Balls' shameless politicking is designed to play to a deep-seated intolerance towards faith schools from many Labour MPs, trade unions and members of the metropolitan chattering classes who oppose any state funding for religious schools. Among them wilful disinformation is retained as unchallenged truth.

Church schools like the one my eight-year-old attends place real emphasis on social justice, a bias to the poor, solidarity among nations and respect for the integrity of creation. All this leads to the opposite of social division. The church school in the parish I used to attend, in Manchester's Moss Side, had kids from 42 different nationalities. There the creation of shared social values, rooted in a religious faith, spills over to build social cohesion in the wider community. Parents of different racial backgrounds meet, interact and socialise because of their children's school. Catholic schools in particular have more ethnic minorities than other schools and as many kids on free school meals. Contrary to fashionable views in secularist circles, in most schools religion does considerably more good than harm.

I will plead guilty to one thing. In retrospect, it was a mistake for governors at our school to leave it to others to sort out wording of our admissions policy. We should have just used our common sense about finding the wording which had the greatest clarity. There you are - an admission that we made the wrong judgement. Now all we need is to hear an admission for Ed Balls that he was wrong too. Don't hold your breath