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Faith-based free schools could select more faithful children, Government proposes

01 May 2024


The Schools Minister, Damian Hinds

The Schools Minister, Damian Hinds

THE Government has proposed lifting the 50-per-cent cap on faith-based admissions for new faith schools in England, subject to a consultation launched by the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, on Wednesday.

Currently, any new faith school — created under the free-schools programme — that is oversubscribed can choose pupils based on faith for just half the available places.

The programme, with its faith cap — for schools funded by central government but not run by the local authority — was introduced by Lord Cameron during the Coalition Government. It was argued at the time that the cap would halt the increase of hardline religious schools. The Government now says that it has, instead, inadvertently prevented the expansion of some denominational schools.

A press release announcing the proposals on Wednesday said that the aim was for “high-performing” faith-school providers, such as the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church, to set up new schools and expand into “strong multi-academy trusts” (MATs) where there was a demand. The move, it said, was based on new figures that show that half of schools in England are now academies.

“The Church of England, Catholic Church, and other faith-school providers have a track record in delivering high-quality education, and run some of the highest-performing schools across the country,” the announcement said.

But because of the faith-admissions cap, “some faith groups have felt unable to open new free schools and felt discouraged about bringing existing schools into academy trusts.”

Speaking to the Church Times on Tuesday, the Schools Minister, Damian Hinds, said that this “constraint” had been felt particularly by the RC Church. It has previously argued that favouring non-RC children over children of faith was incompatible with canon law. In 2015, the Catholic Education Service declined to participate in the free-schools programme until the cap was repealed.

Mr Hinds said that the Government wanted all Christian and non-Christian denominations to have “as full a part as possible in this great development and improvement [of academisation] that we’ve been working towards in the English school system. And that means having equal access to be able to open free schools.”

The “great strength” of this system was its variety, he said; but “within that variety, I also am very conscious that faith schools quite often do very well academically; they can also have a unique and special pastoral atmosphere and approach.”

As well as scrapping the cap, the Government plans to open special faith-based academies to improve provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Mr Hinds said that admissions for these schools would “still be based on children’s education, health, and care plan, rather than faith or religious-practice criteria. But it will mean that you can have a special school with a religious character and with the freedoms that come with that,” such as advertising for staff who have a faith, being able to teach Religious Education (RE) according to the tenets of that faith, and making a place for worship.

Last month, a report from Ofsted concluded that RE in English schools often failed to prepare students to “live in a complex world”, and criticised the Government for not acting on a report published ten years previously which drew similar conclusions (News, 19 April).

Asked about the current state of RE, Mr Hinds said: “We always take Ofsted reports seriously. RE has a unique place in our school system and we will continue to take the development and optimisation of RE very seriously.”

Responding to the government plans this week, the Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said: “By enabling Church of England special schools, we can serve the needs of more children in more communities, irrespective of their faith background. With over 50 per cent of schools now being academies, it is vital to continue to develop the system to enable schools of all types to be part of a trust with a shared purpose and vision for the common good.”

The RC Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Marcus Stock, who chairs the Catholic Education Service, said: “These proposals are welcome. Dioceses are well placed to respond to differing local educational demands around the country, including the provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.”

Making the announcement, Ms Keegan said: “As someone who attended a faith school as a child, and having worked closely with our leading faith groups as Education Secretary, I’ve seen first-hand how their values and standards so often give young people a brilliant start in life.

“Faith groups run some of the best schools in the country, including in some of the most disadvantaged areas, and it’s absolutely right we support them to unleash that potential even further — including through the creation of the first-ever faith academies for children with special educational needs.”

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