Panel wrongly questions child’s religion at appeal for faith school entry

Posted: Fri, 13th Jan 2023

Panel wrongly questions child’s religion at appeal for faith school entry

A child rejected by a faith school had his baptism status wrongly queried by an admissions appeal panel, an ombudsman has found.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman upheld a mother's complaint against Cardinal Heenan Catholic School in Liverpool after her child, 'N', was refused a place there, according to a recent decision report.

The ombudsman found the appeals panel wrongly took into account N's unbaptised status, while ignoring factors that made Cardinal Heenan more suitable for him, during the second stage of the appeal process.

"Vulnerable" child rejected due to lack of baptism

N's mother, 'M', applied for a place at the school for him to start Year 7 in September 2022. Cardinal Heenan prioritises children who are baptised Catholic in its admissions, but N was not baptised.

Exemptions for faith schools in equality law enable them to prioritise applicants on the grounds of religion. Because the school was oversubscribed, all places went to either looked-after children or baptised children.

N was instead allocated a school which would require him to take four buses and travel two and a half hours every school day.

M appealed for N to be admitted due to his special educational and health needs, including anxiety. She submitted a letter from N's junior school highlighting his "increased need for support". N was also being assessed for an education, health and care plan.

She also sent the appeal panel his educational psychology report which confirmed N was "vulnerable". It said: "the expectations of [N] to travel independently on two buses to and from school each day is wholly inappropriate".

M also told the panel she would face logistical problems getting N and his sibling to different schools, and that he had friends going to Cardinal Heenan. She added that N lacked road sense.

M said N was attending the local church every week with a view to being baptised, but this was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Panel repeatedly questions mother over baptism

While it was appropriate for the panel to consider N's baptism status at the first stage of the appeal, it should not have been a factor at the second stage. At the second stage, the panel should only consider whether the reasons a child should be admitted outweigh the school's reasons for not admitting any more children at all.

However, at the second stage, the panel repeatedly interrogated M about why N was not baptised.

This included asking M why she had not had N baptised before the pandemic, and why she did not have a letter of explanation from the church explaining his lack of baptism.

The panel did not make any reference to N's anxiety, the support he would need, his lack of road sense or the commuting he needed to do. They also did not consider the logistical problems his mother would face.

The panel rejected M's appeal, causing her family "a great deal of stress". The decision report said N is remaining at home and is not attending any school.

Ombudsman: Questions on religion "went way beyond" remit

The ombudsman upheld M's complaint and found the panel at fault on multiple aspects of the appeal process, including considering N's baptism status at the second stage of the appeal.

It criticised the panel's excessive questioning of M on religion, which "went well beyond merely trying to establish whether the admission policy was properly applied".

It was also "not satisfied" that the first stage of the appeal was conducted "in a fair and transparent way".

The ombudsman required the school to apologise to M, review why the faults happened, and arrange a rehearing of her appeal.

NSS: 'Priority given to religion leads to harm'

Jack Rivington, campaigns officer at the National Secular Society, said: "This case demonstrates how allowing faith schools to discriminate against pupils and their families on the basis of religion can lead to other important considerations, including health and special educational needs, being disregarded.

"As a result, the family in question have been put through needless suffering and stress, with the child not attending school after being refused a place.

"As long as faith schools are allowed to discriminate on matters of religion in their admissions, children will continue to be harmed in this way, and families subjected to ordeals of the kind revealed in this case. Faith schools' exemptions from equality law must therefore be ended."

Image: Shutterstock

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Tags: Faith schools, School admissions