It’s not fair. Let’s be honest.

There’s a need for more honesty from Oldham Council about the Brian Clarke Academy admissions policy.

At a Council Cabinet meeting last week, Cllr Mushtaq (Cabinet Member for Education and Skills) claimed that the admissions arrangements for the new Brian Clarke Academy are “fair and equitable to pupils of all faiths and no faith”, and that the Council believes ‘‘all groups will have an equal opportunity to gain a place at that school.”

He may wish this were the case, but he must know this simply isn’t true.

It’s not a matter of opinion or debate. Most Oldhamers are only eligible for the places allocated to their geographical zone, but children of regular worshippers are also eligible for the ‘faith-based places’. As a result, those children have access to over twice as many places. The faith-based places will be allocated with no reference to geography. You could live in central Oldham but if you don’t have a history of attending worship regularly, these places are effectively closed to your children. A child from beyond the 3-mile zone would have preference if its parents can tick the faith box. You can see a fuller explanation of the effects of the policy here.

So the policy discriminates against people of no faith, and those whose beliefs don’t compel them to attend a public act of worship every week. These are not small in number, yet they are treated as second-class citizens by the Cranmer Education Trust. 

Not surprisingly, this isn’t how the Trust describes the admissions policy. Instead, they often use words that imply the very opposite. They describe it as being ‘inclusive’ and being a ‘microcosm’ of the town, before going on to explain how it will give preference to children with certain backgrounds. They point to the fact that the places are ‘equally split’ between ‘faith and non-faith based’ as if the religious aren’t able to apply for both. 

That the Cranmer Education Trust wishes to gloss over the inequity of their admission arrangements is not too surprising. But we don’t believe Oldham Council should play any part in marketing them as being fair to all. Indisputably, they are not.

To continue to describe the school’s admissions in this way, Oldham Council risks more than just being on the wrong side of the ethical argument. It is doing a disservice to residents who may get the false impression that their child has an equal chance of going to the Brian Clarke Academy, when they don’t. The Council owes it to its residents to tell the truth about the opportunities available to parents. 

In fact, a logical step Oldham Council might take – if it endorses faith selection – is to plan information campaigns perhaps targeting parents of 6-year-olds. They could explain that regular religious worship, especially in Anglican churches, will massively improve their options of a good secondary school place. It will bring the 2 best-performing state-funded schools into play for their child. Being fully informed at this stage would at least give parents time to collect the necessary points for faith school eligibility, if their conscience allows it.

Of course, to run such an information campaign would be to fully acknowledge the absurdity and unfairness of Oldham’s secondary school provision, with over a quarter of its places reserved for children of worshippers, in 21st century Britain.  It would be more honest, though, than telling people they have equal opportunities when they don’t.

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