Why I exposed school entry flaws

By Ed Balls, April 11, 2008

Faith schools can ask for voluntary donations, but they must not be a condition of admission

Jewish schools play a vital role in delivering excellent education for young people in this country. The Jewish community’s commitment to enriching and empowering young minds — shown by the high priority education is given in Jewish homes and its central role in Jewish life — is a model we can all learn from.

As a child I went to Sunday school every week — my father was one of the teachers. We studied all the stories from the Old and New Testaments. We learned about being a good neighbour, about generosity and tolerance, and the power of faith to tackle injustice. And we read and discussed the inspiring story of the struggle of the Jewish people towards freedom from slavery in Egypt — which will soon be remembered in the festival of Passover.

So I know the importance religious education and identity can have in shaping attitudes and instilling values that stay with you for the rest of your life.

Since I became Secretary of State for Schools last summer I’ve been in close touch with all the different faith communities. I believe the joint work that my department and I have done with the Board of Deputies and the Agency for Jewish Education on Faith in the System has been hugely important.

Faith schools are successful, thriving and popular with parents — and we want them to stay that way. As I said when we launched that landmark document — and as I repeated in an interview in these pages just a couple of months ago — I strongly support the historic and important role that Jewish schools and all faith schools play in our education system and wider society. Many Jewish schools are amongst the best in the country, providing an education that is second to none and setting a great example that other schools could learn a lot from.

Our shared goals for all schools — faith or non-faith alike — are to deliver excellent teaching and learning for all pupils, promote community cohesion and ensure fair admissions for all parents. That’s why, with cross-party support in Parliament, we introduced the School Admissions Code last year to ensure a level playing field for all parents and ban unfair practices like interviewing parents or asking them for financial contributions as part of the admissions process.

A few months ago, my department’s officials undertook a spot-check of admissions arrangements. Three local authority areas were chosen on the basis that they represented a London borough, a metropolitan borough, and a shire county, and where the independent watchdog, the Schools Adjudicator, had received no complaints about admissions rules.

When I was presented with the findings, I must admit I was taken aback. The evidence showed that one in six schools in the areas surveyed were in breach of the Admissions Code — 18 of them on more than three counts.  

After taking expert and legal advice, it was clear we had no option but to publish the findings for parents. It wasn’t possible to verify information on breaches of the Admissions Code with over 100 schools without making public what we were doing. Only after several weeks of checking this information directly with all the schools and governing bodies did we publish the final results of the survey last week. Of the 570 schools in the sample, 13 were Jewish schools. There were also 32 Catholic schools and 42 Church of England schools, as well as other non-faith schools.  

I do not think that keeping all this information a secret would have been possible or the right thing to do in the public interest. And while I fully recognise the public attention this work inevitably brought has been stressful for some of the schools concerned, our objective was not to focus on any particular school or type of school but to support fair admissions for all.

There have been some misinformed comments in recent days, so let me be clear: I am not saying that schools should be prevented from asking for voluntary contributions. Of course they can. But it’s only fair that this is kept entirely separate from the admissions process.

Security is clearly a top priority for Jewish schools and I support the right of schools to ask parents to make a voluntary contribution for this necessary cost, as well as for extra religious education.

It’s a sad reality that antisemitism still exists and that’s why I’ve always been a strong supporter of the excellent work the Community Security Trust does to help protect and defend Jewish people in this country. Last year we announced extra capital funding for schools in every part of the country and made clear to local authorities that security measures for any Jewish schools in their area must be a top priority for this new money.

I’m grateful for the support which Henry Grunwald and the Board of Deputies have shown in recent months as we work to ensure fair admission arrangements in all schools for parents and children applying later this year.

I am determined that we continue our work together to support Jewish schools — and recognise some of the extra challenges they face. They make a really important contribution to our education system — and long may that continue.

Ed Balls MP is Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Last updated: 4:05pm, June 8 2008