The dubious legality of ‘On Your Knees, Avoid the Fees’

Attending church to secure a school place is widespread and morally dubious, but is it also illegal?

It’s alarming that attending a church to improve your chances of getting a middle class biased school place for your child has it’s own phrase. It’s also unusual to find the press universally condemning a practice:

Evening Standard: Faith invaders: weekend worship takes off. The ‘on your knees, avoid the fees’ brigade are swelling congregations across the capital.

Mail Online: Parents ‘only go to church for places at faith schools’

Daily Telegraph: Dearly beloved: Get on your knees and avoid the fees.

Vicars these days have to deal with endless tantrums, schmoozing and fake piety. It’s a world away from the ‘Vicar of Dibley’, says Giles Fraser, canon chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral

But it’s a practice that is actively supported by the church schools themselves. An example from the Kentish Town C of E Primary School shows half the places are for:

* Children whose parent(s) live within half a mile of our school (measured by Camden Council) and who worship at St Benet’s Church, having attended a Sunday service at least twice in each calendar month for a minimum of two years prior to application.

* Children whose parent(s) live within a quarter of a mile of our school (measured by Camden Council) and who worship at a Christian church that subscribes to the Nicene Creed, having attended a Sunday service at least twice in each calendar month for a minimum of two years prior to application.

So if you’re desperate to get in to the local school you double your chances by attending St Benet’s Church. Who wouldn’t consider it? How many do go through with it?

How big is the problem?

Interviews by the Sutton Trust in 2013 provides evidence for how many parents admit to attending church just for school places. In their report: “Parent Power? Using money and information to boost children’s chances of educational success (Dec 13).

Parents were asked if they had employed particular strategies to get into a good school. The strategies most frequently used were …. attending church services to gain entry to a church school (6%); ….

How many children are we talking about? From the CoE themselves;

Approximately 1 million children attend CofE schools

So if 6% of parents are attending a church just to get a school place that would equate to 60,000 children attending church accompanied by 120,000 parents. Out of how many at church? From church figures again:

… the Usual Sunday Attendance, 784,600 people attended.”

So fully 23% of worshippers may be there only for a school place, an alarming statistic.

Do people in the church think this is ok? Most obviously do, but many don’t. In 2015 twenty religious leaders signed an open letter to the Guardian “Church schools admissions policy open to abuse” to urge the Church of England to stop selecting pupils by faith and a primary school in Kingston stopped selecting by faith as the vicar explained:

“‘Both the requirement for recorded attendance and the cynicism about attendance do not contribute to a positive and affirming atmosphere for the nurture of Faith.”

So the practice is morally wrong but is it even legal? If you’ve missed out on a school place because of the practice can you do anything?

The church schools themselves are legally protected but what about the churches?

Breaking the law?

Each church is run by a Parochial Church Council, a charity governed by the Charity Act 2011 and they must follow the Charity Commission’s guidance on providing public benefit. Rules are laid out on gaining new members (proselytising) in ”Advancement of Religion for the Public Benefit” which states:

However, there are circumstances in which the way in which proselytising is carried out, or the effects of proselytising, can [negatively] affect public benefit, such as where it involves:

* exerting improper pressure on people in distress or need; or

* activities that entail the use of violence or brainwashing; or

* activities offering material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members of the religion.

So a church cannot offer material advantages (such as preference at a school) in order to win converts? The guidance is based on human rights legislation, in particular a court case from the European Court of Human Rights in 1993 Kokkinakis v Greece 1993 (17 EHRR 397, EctHR) which supported proselytism but also stated what is not allowed:

48. First of all, a distinction has to be made between bearing Christian witness and improper proselytism. The former corresponds to true evangelism, which a report drawn up in 1956 under the auspices of the World Council of Churches describes as an essential mission and a responsibility of every Christian and every Church. The latter represents a corruption or deformation of it. It may, according to the same report, take the form of activities offering material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members for a Church or exerting improper pressure on people in distress or in need; it may even entail the use of violence or brainwashing; more generally, it is not compatible with respect for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion of others.

The World Council of Churches guidelines in question outline how churches should co-operate and behaviour to avoid:

II. PROSELYTISM AND RELATIONS BETWEEN CHURCHES (updated 1965)

27. Witness should avoid behavior such as:

a) ……

b) Every open or disguised offer of temporal or material benefits in return for change in religious adherence.

c) Every exploitation of the need or weakness or of lack of education of those to whom witness is offered, in view of inducing their adherence to a Church.

Seems quite specific.

What can you do?

If you’ve been caused harm by the actions of a church who actively support church school admissions in exchange for new members you’ve two new courses of action to think about:

* Report the church charity to the Charity Commission.

* Take the church to court for breaching your human rights.

That might get their attention, help you and possibly help stamp out the dubious practice for good.