Rising numbers of children are being given late baptisms amid a scramble for places at the most popular Roman Catholic schools, it has emerged.
Figures show that the number of children baptised after their first birthday has soared by a third in just 10 years.
At the same time, fewer “cradle” baptisms of children under the age of one are being recorded. Similar figures have been recorded by the Church of England.
The disclosure – in data from the Pastoral Research Centre Trust – prompted fresh claims that “pew jumping” parents are effectively feigning religious observance to get their children into sought-after faith schools.
Late baptisms are often sought by parents who suddenly realise that certificates are needed to meet the entrance requirements of oversubscribed primary schools, it is claimed.
One parent told the Telegraph how he got his three children baptised just a fortnight before the application deadline to meet a school’s admissions rules.
It comes weeks after a major study by the Sutton Trust charity found that one-in-10 middle-class parents had exaggerated or lied about their faith to secure entry to religious schools.
But the PRCT insisted that the rise could not simply be explained by church school admissions.
Anthony Spencer, the trust’s director, said the move was indicative of more modern attitudes towards Catholic traditions, which has also seen a sharp decline in those taking part in confession and following rules on contraception.
“The social control exercised by the bishops and clergy over the Catholic laity has been hugely reduced,” he said. “Parishioners think for themselves, take their own moral decisions, and don’t jump when the priest tells them to.”
But Jonathan Romain, chairman of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns against faith school selection policies, said: “Many Catholic schools will only take children whom they have baptised, so for parents desperate for a school place, baptism is a significant entry ticket to a local school.”
He added: “As Catholic schools are publicly funded, they should be open to the community at large rather than using faith as a way of discriminating between children and enabling some families to jump the queue.”
The research centre published a new report detailing statistics compiled by Catholic dioceses in England and Wales each year. The latest data covers 2001 to 2012.
Overall, the number of children being baptised increased from 67,724 a decade ago to 74,767 in 2011, before falling slightly in 2012.
Of those, the number of baptisms under one fell by five per cent – from 44,130 to 41,937.
At the same time, late baptisms of children aged one to 13 soared from 19,528 in 2001 to 26,601 in 2011 – a rise of 36 per cent. Numbers fell slightly in the last year to 25,225, although it still represents a hike of 30 per cent since 2001.
It also emerged that the number of adult conversions stayed broadly similar, with 4,066 recorded in 2001 and 4,218 in 2012.
Separate data from the Church of England last year showed it carried out 83,851 infant baptisms in 2011, up 2.6 per cent.
But baptisms of older children rose by 7.5 per cent to 45,258, with the vast majority relating to those aged two or three.
The Telegraph spoke to one father-of-three who got his children baptised at a Polish Catholic church two weeks before the deadline to apply to a leading school.
“I didn’t think it would be possible to go to our local parish to get the children baptised,” he said. “The priest is not that friendly, and he might have smelt a rat if we asked to have our children baptised so last minute. The priest at the Polish church just asked me if I go to church. I said we go to a different church and we want to start going to this one.”