The Catholic Church is taking the government’s schools admissions watchdog to court to defend the right of priests to determine whether pupils are eligible for a place based on faith. The move follows a ruling earlier this month by the schools adjudicator that a policy across all UK Catholic schools by which priests decided on a pupil-by-pupil basis whether they came from a "practising (Catholic) family" was unfair. The adjudicator’s decision was based on a complaint by a parent who had hoped to secure a place for their child at St Richard Reynolds Catholic College in Twickenham. The parent and Surrey County Council argued that the policy failed to define "what form or frequency of religious practice is required for a priest to do this."
The Catholic Education Service (CES), which oversees policy for the UK’s 2,300 Catholic schools, issued a Certificate of Catholic Practice (CCP) for the current academic year. Its aim was to ensure that all Catholic schools followed the same admissions policy, thereby closing loopholes in which parents without any genuine faith sought to "game the system" to admit their children. Under the CCP, faith schools can select oversubscribed pupils on the basis of religious faith. However, there have been complaints that the application of CCPs has been "inconsistent" with no clear "transparent" basis for decision-making.
However, the UK government has proposed lifting the 50% cap on the proportion of faith selection in free schools and academies. Voluntary-aided faith schools are allowed to select up to 100% of pupils on the basis of faith. Catholic schools perform better than the national average in SATs and GCSE tests, exceeding the former by six percentage points and the latter by five percentage points.
The Office of the Schools Adjudicator ruled that the criteria on which priests made their decisions were "not transparent." The ruling said: "There is no easy way for any parent to know in advance that they will be able to fulfil the over-subscription criteria under which such priority is afforded." Parents who have attended mass for many years may not be granted a CCP, whilst a recent convert or someone who has been prevented from attending church could be given priority in the admissions process. The legality over the determinations is now being challenged in the UK high court.
A spokesman for the Catholic Education Service said: "The central issue in the determinations is who should decide whether a pupil is a practising Catholic. Within the Catholic community, it is accepted that priests are the correct authority to identify any practising Catholics."