One of the many fantastic schools in my borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is the London Oratory, a Roman Catholic boys secondary school. It has been much sought after, not just by local parents but those elsewhere. Nick Clegg's son starts there next month. Tony Blair, Harriet Harman, and Ruth Kelly are among the Labour politicians to have chosen it. If the school just selected the Roman Catholics living nearest to the school then Mr Clegg would not have had a hope of getting his son in.
Nor would Mr Blair who was living in Islington at the time his eldest son was awarded a place. His predecessor Lord Kinnock expressed some reservations, remarking to Alastair Campbell:
"How can Blair address education policy when he sent his own son to the SS Waffen Academy?"
Of course Lord Kinnock never managed to convince the British electorate that his judgement was sufficiently balanced to be entrusted as Prime Minister.
So far as the Roman Catholic parents I represent in the Ravenscourt Park Ward are concerned they would be pleased if preference was given to their sons for places at the school rather than being nabbed by Islington socialists.
However, the school decides to award points for the strength of religious commitment. This includes:
Service in a Catholic Parish or in the wider Catholic Church by the candidate or a Catholic parent. A maximum of 2 points can be scored for service of at least three years with the definition of service including: assisting in the liturgy by reading or singing in the choir, playing an instrument, altar serving or flower arranging; assisting in parish pastoral work by visiting those in need or participating in parish groups; or getting involved in wider Catholic Church activities such as assisting in or membership of organisations or groups, voluntary work by visiting or helping the sick of housebound.
I find it hard to see how anyone who wishes faith schools to have the freedom and independence to thrive could find it unreasonable to allow the school to include this criteria. Yet the British Humanist Association – whose motives are obvious – decided to object. In a quite appalling ruling the Office of the Schools Adjudicator upheld the objection:
The school further argues that as this service is religious activity it is permitted by paragraph 1.9i of the Code which states that “… Schools which have been designated as having a religious character may take account of religious activities, as laid out by the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination”.
I have considered whether or not I agree with the school about this reference to paragraph 1.9i.
I can see that some of the activities used could be described as religious activities in the more general sense but the Code refers to “religious activities, as laid out by (in this case) the Diocesan Bishop”. The diocese, on behalf of the Diocesan Bishop, has published guidance to schools on admissions and this is where I would expect to see such religious activities laid out if they are to be designated as such for admissions purposes. However, the guidance is silent on this matter. I conclude, therefore, that such activities have not been laid out and as a result are not designated as religious activities that may be taken into account for admissions purposes and are not therefore permitted by the Code at paragraph 1.9i.
Is singing in a church choir a religous activity? Is flower arranging in church? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The taxpayer spends half a million a year a year for the Office of the Schools Adjudicator to produce this meddling piffle.
Those who believe in either religous freedom or educational excellence will be disturbed by this ruling. The Education Secretary Michael Gove believes in both.
Therefore Mr Gove should act decisively. The Office of Schools Adjudicator should be closed down. Those would stop faith school heads having their time wasted and independence restricted by malicious complaints.
The half million saved could surely be put to some good use. What about sending every school in the country a copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer to go with the King James Bible they have already been sent?