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DfE acts to safeguard choristers’ places at school

27 February 2015

Historic: Bristol Cathedral Choir School's Deanery, a Grade II listed building and the school's main entrance

Historic: Bristol Cathedral Choir School's Deanery, a Grade II listed building and the school's main entrance

ONLY days after the Office of the Schools Adjudicator ruled that Bristol Cathedral Choir School needed specific ministerial permission to give priority in admissions to choristers, the Department for Education has sent the necessary legal document.

The permission, known as a derogation, had been inadvertently omitted from the Funding Agreement when Bristol Cathedral Choir School became an academy in 2008.

On Wednesday, the choir school's Principal, Neil Blundell, said: "We never really believed there was any question of the school having to refuse places to choristers for this September, but the Department's action removes any doubt, and I am grateful for such a quick response.

"Importantly, it represents a seal of approval from the Government, ensuring that the long tradition of cathedral choir schools can flourish in the state sector."

The technical error had been discovered by the adjudicator, Dr Elizabeth Passmore, who had been investigating objections by the Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) that admissions arrangements for choristers at Bristol Cathedral Choir School were unfair. Dr Passmore did not uphold the objection, and ruled that giving priority to probationary choristers was neither unfair nor unreasonable, and did not breach admission-code rules on parental support for the school or selection by ability.

Dr Passmore turned down the FAC's argument that the assessment of musical aptitude was a test of ability. It was a test of aptitude which was self-evidently necessary for a child to become a probationary chorister, she ruled.

Nevertheless, she told the choir school that it might not, for the present, give priority in admissions from the closely associated Cathedral Primary School, which is a free school. The school will also have to bring forward the verbal-reasoning test taken by all applicants to ensure spread of ability.

Mr Blundell said that a previous investigation by the Schools Adjudicator, 18 months ago, had cleared chorister-admission arrangements of the choir school. Governors and staff were committed to complying with complex changes to ensure fair admissions. "However," he said, "when schools come under attack from campaigners, they must divert considerable resources - teachers' time and taxpayers' money - into investigating and resolving the issues raised."

One of the most oversubscribed schools in Bristol, and among the top 100 secondaries in England, Bristol Cathedral Choir School received 785 applications for its 120 Year 7 places. Only eight places are reserved for choristers.

The FAC, which targets schools with a religious designation, is backed by the British Humanist Association, and organisations affiliated to the Accord alliance.

It has also turned its attention to another school in Bristol, St Mary Redcliffe and Temple, a C of E voluntary aided, 1600-pupil comprehensive with examination results that place it among the top 20 per cent of all secondary schools in England. Each year, there are more than 600 applications - of which 300 are first preferences - for 216 Year 7 places.

In a series of objections to the school's admissions code, the FAC argued that giving priority to applicants from Christian or other faiths discriminated against those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. Further discrimination, the FAC said, resulted from the requirement for applications for faith-based places to be supported by two appropriate signatures. Neither objection was upheld by the adjudicator, Dr Bryan Slater.

Dr Slater did, however, require some general administrative changes for future years. The school's head teacher, Elisabeth Gilpin, said that, after a meeting with the Schools Adjudicator in October, some details around clarity of wording, and the date when criteria were published on the website, had been picked up and put into action.

by Margaret Holness, Education Correspondent

THE British Humanist Association (BHA) has asked the European Commission to review UK legislation that permits schools with a religious designation to include religious criteria when recruiting teachers.

Voluntary aided schools are allowed to specify a religious commitment, in line with the faith of the school, for all staff; in voluntary controlled schools, only the head teacher and religious-education specialist are included in the legislation.

The legislation applies to Church of England, Roman Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh schools within the maintained system. The BHA is challenging the legislation - which the Government insists is in line with relevant European directives - on the basis that schools can insist on applicants' being of a specific faith only where there is a genuine occupational requirement. European law also permits churches and church schools to derogate from the general principle within limits, taking into account the organisation's ethos.

The BHA's challenge, it is understood, is based on the view that expressing a preference for, rather than insisting on, a candidate with appropriate religious views does not imply a genuine occupational requirement.

A spokesman for the Church of England said: "Our schools are required to maintain a C of E ethos by the trusts that govern their land, and, in pursuit of this requirement, we are advised that European law allows us some flexibility in recruitment.

"However, we would encourage all schools, when recruiting, to consider carefully what the re-quirements for any particular post might be, and how these sit with maintaining the ethos of the school."

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