Join Donate

Parent challenges admissions regulator after Catholic Diocese allowed to limit school choice

The Catholic Church has been allowed to dictate the admissions policies of secondary schools in Leicester, even where these are not faith schools. This is according to a parent who has made a complaint to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) – the body that regulates schools admissions. The parent, Dr Sara Thompson, argues that this behaviour effectively traps children in Catholic education for life, because pupils in Catholic primary schools are then funnelled into attending Catholic secondary schools.

Humanists UK – which has long campaigned for fully inclusive school admissions policies – has expressed alarm that the Catholic Church is permitted to influence admissions policies, not only of its own schools, but also of local schools without a religious character.

When the time comes, Dr Thompson, whose child currently attends St Thomas More, a Catholic primary school in Leicester, would prefer to choose a school of no religious character for their secondary. However, the Diocese of Nottingham is actively blocking all the local community ethos schools from listing St Thomas More as a feeder school. The feeder school system is designed to give children attending local primaries better access to secondary schools in the same area. But St Thomas More is only listed as a feeder for one secondary school – St Paul’s Catholic School, which is also run by the Diocese’s own Multi Academy Trust (MAT).

In 2020, following requests from 45 St Thomas More parents, a local community ethos school called Beauchamp College consulted on a proposal to add St Thomas More as a feeder. Despite a letter from the Diocese criticising the plan, the vast majority of respondents to a formal consultation (60%) supported it. As a result, St Thomas More was temporarily listed as a feeder for Beauchamp. However, it was later removed from the list after the OSA upheld an objection lodged by the Diocese. According to the CEO of the MAT, Neil Lockyer, they objected to the decision because ‘the relationship between local Catholic primary and secondary schools is fundamental and sacrosanct’.

In an objection to the OSA, the Diocese also complained that Beauchamp had not obtained their agreement for St Thomas More to be included as a feeder. In fact, there is no duty for secondary schools to consult any religious body who runs the primaries they list as feeders. This point was acknowledged in the OSA report. However, the OSA still upheld the complaint because it considered that the faith character of St Thomas More puts it ‘in a different position to the other feeder schools… and justifies its different treatment in this respect.’ Dr Thompson is challenging this decision, arguing it means parents whose children attend Catholic primaries are expected to ‘forgo their choice of non-Catholic secondary schools and are trapped into the Catholic system.’

Beauchamp College is not the only school to have been affected by the actions of the Diocese. Manor High School had previously listed St Thomas More as a feeder, but when it consulted on a proposal to remove it from this list and informed the Catholic school about the consultation, the school did not inform parents. As a result, parents were not aware the consultation had taken place until they discovered that St Thomas More had been delisted. The failures in this process also form part of Dr Thompson’s complaint (known as a referral) to the OSA.

In addition to her ongoing case with the OSA, Dr Thompson recently asked her local MP, Jonathan Ashworth, to write to Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi about the issue. In response to another constituent who also brought the matter forward (seen by Humanists UK), Mr Zahawi said, ‘a Catholic diocese could seek to influence its own schools but does not have any powers to restrict parental preference in the way set out in your letter because it is a matter for the admission authority of the non-faith secondary school whether it adopts feeder schools. If it does adopt feeders, it is a matter for the admissions authority of the secondary school to decide which local schools it is fair to adopt as feeders – and these might include Catholic schools’.

Parent Dr Sara Thompson, who is now fundraising to cover the legal costs, commented: 

‘I am taking action so that my children – and all the children in our primary school – have the same chances as all the other primary school children in the area; I am doing this because many parents were unaware they were being implicitly tied into a rigid contract that effectively means Catholic primary school parents forgo their choice of non-Catholic secondary schools and are trapped into the Catholic system. This was not an informed decision for a substantial number of parents and there is no exit strategy from this trap.’

Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘It is completely outrageous that the OSA has allowed a Catholic diocese to dictate the admissions policies of secondary schools of no religious character, on the grounds of preserving the ‘continuity of Catholic education’. The truth is that children are regularly sent to faith schools against their parents’ wishes. And even when this does not happen, people’s beliefs change over time. What has happened in this case means that this unfortunate situation happening at the primary level is then likely to repeat itself at the secondary level.

‘The parents who want St Thomas More to be listed as a feeder for their local community ethos schools aren’t stopping others from selecting a Catholic secondary, they simply want the freedom to make the most appropriate choice of school for their children. The Diocese should not be allowed to block their options. We strongly support Dr Thompson’s case and urge the OSA to rethink its position on this matter.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Policy Researcher Dr Ruth Wareham at ruth@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.

Read our most recent article on parents exaggerating religious affiliation to secure local school places.

Read more about our work on faith schools and religious selection.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

Search Humanists UK