CHURCH schools and schools established by other religions will be able to give all their places to children of their own faith, if new government proposals become law. The Church of England Education Office said, however, that its policy was unlikely to change, arguing that C of E schools were not faith schools, but church schools that were open to all.
Lifting the current 50-per-cent cap on so-called faith places is one of several ground-changing proposals set out in a Green Paper, a consultation document that was published unexpectedly on Monday. The document heralds the shape of forthcoming legislation, and visualises ending the current ban on new grammar schools, and allowing the expansion of those that still exist.
It has also outlined rigorous demands that the Government intends to impose on independent schools to justify their charitable status: they will be expected to set up Free Schools, and to share their expertise and facilities more widely than many do at present. Similar demands would be made of universities that charge more than £6000 a year in tuition fees.
In a speech to the House of Commons on Friday, the Prime Minister made it clear that the proposed changes were a key part of her “One Nation” programme. New grammar schools would be targeted at economically deprived areas and those with a dearth of good or outstanding schools. They would be obliged to offer places to a quota of children from low-income families; to establish high-quality non-selective schools near by; and to set up feeder primaries in low-income areas.
Her theme was taken up by the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, on Monday. Introducing the Green Paper, she told MPs that the 1.25 million children who did not have the option of a good or outstanding school in their area were faced with “selection by postcode”.
The Green Paper proposals address sensitive issues for the Church of England. The cap on faith places, which had been intended to promote social and ethnic integration, signally failed to meet its objectives. Minority-faith schools failed to attract pupils of other faiths, while Roman Catholic schools, which have an above-average social and ethnic mix of pupils, were unable to meet the demand for places from the increasing number of RC East European and African immigrant families.
The Catholic Education Service, which has officially welcomed the Government’s change of heart, has already announced its intention to build 40 new schools.
The Church of England, on the other hand, insisted that it would not be taking advantage of the opportunity to create more overtly Christian places. Its Chief Education Officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said this week: “Our schools are not faith schools for the faithful, but church schools for the community, and we don’t propose to change that. Very few select by Christian affiliation, and those those that do are in areas where competition for places is acute.”
Reflecting Mrs May’s strictures, he said: “Often, providing places purely on distance from a school means that only those who can afford a house near by can access the best schools.” In practice, fewer than half of all C of E schools have any faith places.
The Revd Steve Chalke, the founder of the Christian charity Oasis, which runs 47 academies — 17 of which are secondaries — has ruled out any form of selection by either faith or ability.
The C of E has made no comment on the proposal for more grammar schools. All but three of the former Anglican selective schools are now comprehensive, and the handful that have retained a high proportion of faith places have been under pressure to open up their admissions.
It is possible, however, that a few high-performing C of E schools will be tempted to reinstate or introduce a degree of selection. In the case of those that are academies, a majority of governors in favour of selection could take advantage of new legislation, and disregard objections from their diocese.
A similar scenario could unfold if governors want a C of E school to become a more overtly “faith school”, despite opposition from its diocese.
The legal issues raised will be discussed at a national consultation in December, hosted by the Education Office’s legal advisers. It is unlikely, however, that the proposals will translate into legislation unamended.
Parliamentary opposition will not be restricted to the Opposition benches. Some Conservative MPs and peers have already raised doubts about extending selection. The veteran MP and former Secretary of State Kenneth Clarke queried the proposals almost as soon as Ms Greening had sat down.