*** DEBUG END ***

Education: New move a breakthrough for special education?

24 May 2024

Howard Dellar looks at the removal of the faith-based cap


The 50-per-cent cap affecting admissions to over-subscribed faith-based academies may change

The 50-per-cent cap affecting admissions to over-subscribed faith-based academies may change

THE Catholic Education Service (CES) has potentially scored a victory for new Roman Catholic academies/free schools in England, after the decision by the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, to hold a consultation on lifting the 50-per-cent cap on church/faith school places in new faith academies. Will the forthcoming General Election, however, put any celebrations on ice?

The proposals will have less impact for the Church of England, as it already seeks new academies through the well-established free-school route and is generally more relaxed about the 50-per-cent cap.

Although there are exceptions — particularly in London, with its higher proportion of voluntary aided (VA) schools — most Church of England schools seek to serve the local community as envisaged by their local site trusts, and thus school places are far less likely to be awarded on faith-based criteria.

Interestingly, in the same month as these proposals, the number of academies in England is said to have reached 11,000, which, for the first time, represents more than half of the state-funded schools, according to government data updated over the past few days.

The present faith cap means that, since 2010, if a “new” academy or free school having a religious character is oversubscribed, it can prioritise pupils on the basis of faith for only 50 per cent of the places. Or, put another way, at least half of the school’s available places must be allocated without reference to faith-based admissions criteria. Under the new proposals, faith or church schools in England will no longer have to offer half of their places to children who do not adhere to their religion.

The Government’s proposals pave the way for new RC academies to open for the first time. The 50-per-cent cap has been controversial from the start. It was introduced in 2010, and particularly hindered plans to open Roman Catholic free schools: the Church argued that canon law prevented its turning away Catholic pupils.

Theresa May’s government, in 2016, proposed removing the cap, but the plan was shelved by the Education Secretary at the time, Damian Hinds, in favour of a move to make it easier to open voluntary aided schools instead. This always seemed a strange policy shift, as the opening of new VA schools was against the direction of travel that had been firmly established by then, that all schools become academies.

It is worth noting that the proposed legislation does not change the admissions code in any way, except to remove the statutory requirement for a cap for new free schools. Existing C of E academies without faith-based admissions criteria will still need consent from the Secretary of State to change their funding agreements, and will need to consult and follow the existing statutory procedure to include faith criteria in their admissions policies (should they wish to do so). Proposed new academies will also have to take the same steps. They may, or may not, be successful.

Perhaps of more significance in these proposals for the Church of England is that academies for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), under these proposals, could now be designated as having a religious character — something that is currently not possible.

This change might encourage existing schools on Church of England sites, with the right facilities, to become special schools — or special academies — in a local reorganisation while keeping their C of E character. In the past, a rent would have had to be charged, or the land sold. These could be exciting projects for dioceses, and would be very much in keeping with the intentions of the original trusts of the school sites, bringing them alive for this generation.

The proposals will not allow faith criteria to be used for special-school admissions. They will, however, allow faith criteria (presumably as for VA schools) to be used for staff appointments, and permit denominational RE and acts of worship. This will all bring them within the bounds of most C of E trust deeds.

The Secretary of State’s decision is subject to a seven-week public consultation which closes on 20 June, and so all eyes are on whether the impending General Election will scupper these proposals. Damian Hinds, the Minister of State for Schools, has said, nevertheless: “We absolutely intend to lift the cap. Its happening.”

Time will tell whether this Government will get the change through in time, and, if it doesn’t, whether either of these proposals would be a priority for an incoming government. It would seem unlikely.


Howard Dellar is Senior Partner and Head of the Ecclesiastical & Education Department at Lee Bolton Monier-Williams.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)