IN SEPTEMBER 2011, only 16 months after Michael Gove became
Secretary of State for Education and threw open the schools system
to independent providers, St Luke's Church, Hampstead, opened a
tiny primary school in its converted crypt.
St Luke's C of E Free Primary, one of the country's first free
schools, was backed by the London Diocesan Board for Schools, and,
although it could take only 15 children in the first year, it was
welcomed with open arms by Camden council, which had a desperate
need for primary places.
Two years on, St Luke's has successfully experienced its first
OFSTED inspection; and four more C of E free schools opened in the
diocese in September 2013. They include a small primary, St Mary's
Hampton, associated with the parish church; a large secondary, and,
breaking new ground for the Church, two special schools.
In contrast with little St Luke's, the free secondary school,
William Perkin High School, a specialist science and language
college, opened in a £19-million architecturally innovative
building in Greenford, with a first-year intake of 180 children. It
is serving an area of north-west London which formerly had no
secondary school. Like its sponsor, Twyford C of E Academy, and its
very successful partner school, Twyford High School, it is already
The special schools, St Marylebone Bridge School, and The
Courtyard at St Mary Magdalene Academy, in Islington, are also
backed by two outstanding academies. They are the first dedicated
Church of England special schools, and reflect a growing
understanding that the widespread closure of special schools across
the country in the 1980s may not have best served the needs of
At the Bridge and the Courtyard, pupils are involved as far as
possible in the day-to-day life of their parent school. The
executive head of St Mary Magdalene's and the Courtyard, Paul
Hollinghum, says, however, that every Courtyard child spends some
time in the academy. The initiative, he says, "is another way we
can serve our community".
Now work is under way on three more C of E free schools in the
London area, which have already been approved by the Department for
Education (DfE) and are supported by the diocese. Two are secondary
boys' schools, proposed by parent groups, while another is a
primary school in a challenging area of outer London with a huge
shortage of places.
Last month, another over-subscribed C of E comprehensive, Bishop
Ramsey, in Ruislip, announced its bid for a sister school in
The director for schools support services on the London Diocesan
Board for Schools foresees the opening of more church free schools
originated by the diocese rather than by supporting bids. The
support that the diocese offers is crucial because so much
preparatory work is required. The initial bid alone requires the
completion of a 160-page document. To help with this work, the
diocese already has a three-strong bids team, and may take on more
staff, she says.
OUTSIDE the capital, dioceses vary in their take-up of the
free-schools route - one that could enlarge the Church's
educational stake significantly. Those most actively pursuing the
route include areas with rapidly growing school-age populations.
Guildford diocese, for example, has put in a bid for a large
secondary free school in Woking, encouraged by the local council,
which is preparing for an explosion in numbers of children over 11
years of age after 2017.
But the diocesan director of education (DDE), Derek Holbird, is
keen on local accountability, and made sure that he had strong
public support before committing the diocese. A prospectus was sent
to all Woking schools and churches, and to other local
organisations. Within weeks he had received 600 responses. All but
two were positive. Competing against other providers, he expects a
decision around Easter.
Guildford has now also been asked to bid for a primary school to
serve a large housing estate that is being built on former military
land, in Aldershot.
A serious shortage of primary places is also driving three free
school proposals backed by St Albans diocese. All are for primary
schools in the south of the diocese, where the shortage is
concentrated, the DDE, Jon Reynolds, says. The extra demand, he
suggests, has been created partly by Eastern European settlement in
the area, and by the movement from inner London of families
affected by the cap on housing benefit.
One of the proposed schools is associated with St John's Church,
Watford, while St Mary's C of E High School, Cheshunt, wants to
develop a feeder primary school in its grounds.
Other established C of E schools have bid to run one or more
free schools. In Manchester, a voluntary aided primary school, in
Didsbury, heard last month that its proposal for an associated
primary on the edge of the city had been accepted.
Birmingham diocese has no free schools of its own, but is
supporting a free-school development in the city - led by a school
without religious designation but that is openly committed to
church-school values, the DDE, the Revd Jackie Hughes, says. Mrs
Hughes says that two-way collaboration is becoming more common as
schools are freed.
Like the two new special schools in London, Lincoln diocese
hopes that the free-school route will be the means of creating
"alternative provision" for pupils who most need it, the DDE,
Jackie Waters-Dewhurst, says. She is waiting for the go-ahead to
develop a school in a disadvantaged part of the county, focused on
the needs of children excluded from school, or in danger of
exclusion. "This is very much what the Church should be doing," she
says. A similar proposal from Lichfield diocese was turned down
after months of negotiations.
A HANDFUL of free schools with a C of E designation come from
outside official circles. Becket Keys Church of England free school
opened in Brentwood, in September 2012, with 123 Year 7 pupils. It
had been promoted by Christians in the area, including the heads of
two C of E primary schools, concerned that the town lacked a church
secondary school. The group's educational partner is the Russell
Trust, which has also backed King's School, Brighton, an ecumenical
In its early stages, the Becket Keys proposal had limited
diocesan support, but Chelmsford's DDE, Tim Elbourne, says that it
has proved successful and popular. "It is now very much part of our
diocesan schools family."
Bristol and Chester have free cathedral schools up and running.
Both specialise in music, and both are oversubscribed. University
Cathedral School, Chester, is part of the University of Chester
Academies Trust, whose director, Dr Colin Hankinson, said that it
expects to make room for more pupils when it moves into its
permanent home in the former diocesan retreat house.
The long-established Anglo-Catholic Woodard Corporation, which
has maintained as well as independent schools in its fold, is also
interested in new C of E designated free schools. It is the
educational partner in the consortium promoting King Solomon
International Business School, which got the go-ahead last month to
open in a deprived part of Birmingham. A Woodard-affiliated C of E
school, St Peter's Collegiate School, Wolverhampton, will give
long-term support to the project.
Woodard is also involved in a proposal, currently in its early
stages, for a 3-18 school in Hanworth, near Heathrow airport.