14/12/2011 06:58 GMT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 GMT

Faith School Selection Angst for Parents

While Religious discrimination is illegal in the UK, it is alive, well, and hard-wired into the selection process for faith schools up and down the country thanks to a loophole permitted for the selection of pupils for faith schools.

Right now, thousands of parents are pondering which primary school to send their kids to in next September's intake. The closing date is in mid-January.

Kids aged four to five will enter reception year and have their first taste of organised education.

There is some flexibility over where you can send your child, but preference is usually given to those who live closest to the school, have a sibling already attending, or fall within a specific catchment area.

Unless, that is, you hold a religious belief.

Schools classed as 'voluntary aided' are able to discriminate on the grounds of religion. The selection criteria are usually the same as for other schools, but with added checks to ensure that the parents of children are actively attending worship. There are a handful of places left over for 'others'.

The problem is that these religious school are, on the whole, rated by Ofcom as superior to the schools attended by the children of non-religious parents. So a religious belief puts your child at the front of the queue for the better-performing faith school.

British parents are a resourceful lot, and have long been wise to this kind of selection. Such is the competition for school places in some parts of the country that parents will attend the relevant place of worship - whether they are of the correct religion or active in the faith community or not - to ensure that the correct boxes are ticked and the right school can be chosen.

Such stories are widespread because they are true. One close friend of mine has used this tactic to get their child into the school they want. I also know of a faith school in my area that is so oversubscribed that families who are genuinely of that faith have failed to get their children into the school.

Clearly the system does not work.

The Labour government had the chance to end this kind of selection on the basis of religion some years back. But it caved in to frantic lobbying led by the Church of England and supported by other religious groups.

Faith schools make up around a third of primary school places and five per cent of secondary school places. A report by the London School of Economics in 2009 stated that school selection remains too complex, and said the system reinforced arbitrary class and religious divides, reinforced by faith selection.

So, having tea with vicar can be significantly more fulfilling than just discussing the weather, and could get your four-year-old the best possible start. In theory.

I should make full disclosure here: I am an atheist, but of the live-and-let-live variety, not atheism-as-religion, as practised by some vocal pundits. I would not want my child to attend a religious school, but the fact that free choice is so stymied bothers me.

I also believe that faith schools should be free to exist, but should select through a lottery, and not be given a special selection process. Just like other schools. Children are impressionable, and parents should know what to expect. But special selection for faith schools has not turned-around the ever-declining numbers in the nation's churches.

Overall, the process is problematic: both inherently unfair and widely abused.

The ideal solution would be to ensure that all schools teach to such a high standard that an active focus on faith is the only difference between a faith school and a 'community' school (one where selection is decided by the local authority).

While the schools system has improved significantly throughout the Blair and Brown years, thanks to huge spending increases, the new age of austerity is likely to generate widening, not narrowing, differences.

Ultimately the current system seems irreligious, by making children pay for the sins - or lack of belief - of the parents.

But as is so eloquently described by economist Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their book 'Freakonomics', a school's performance is insignificant compared to how much effort the parents put into their child's education. So the best answer for all is for parents to stop obsessing about schools, and get involved in their child's learning.