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DfE lifts faith admissions cap and block on special schools

A rule capping the proportion of pupils oversubscribed free schools can select based on faith at 50 per cent will be scrapped, the government has announced.

Ministers also plan to remove a block on new faith special schools, leaving the door open for the Church of England, Catholic Church and other religious groups to open new specialist provision.

But campaigners have warned the plans will “increase religious and racial segregation in our schools at a time when integration and cohesion has never been more important”.

The government will launch consultation on its plans today, claiming the move will allow religious organisations to “create more good school places and create strong multi-academy trusts around the country where there is demand”.

The 50 per cent cap, introduced in 2010, has particularly hindered plans to open Catholic free schools because canon law prevents them from turning away pupils on the basis of their Catholic faith.

Theresa May’s government proposed in 2016 to remove the cap, but the plan was shelved by education secretary Damian Hinds in 2018 in favour of a move to make it easier to open voluntary-aided schools.

Now the Department for Education, in which Hinds now sits as schools minister, has rekindled those plans.

‘Don’t divide along religious lines’

But leaders remain unconvinced.

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the ASCL leaders’ union, said the cap was “introduced for a good reason – to provide a balance between the needs of faith groups to have access to schools which reflect their ethos and beliefs, while also ensuring that schools are accessible to local communities”.

Andrew Copson

“This balance seems sensible and proportionate. We have seen no evidence that scrapping the 50 per cent cap will be of social or educational benefit.”

Andrew Copson, who leads Humanists UK, said the “proposal to allow 100 per cent religious discrimination in new state faith schools will increase religious and racial segregation in our schools at a time when integration and cohesion has never been more important.

“It will further disadvantage poorer families, non-religious families, and families of the ‘wrong’ religion.”

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, said state schools “should bring children from different backgrounds together, not divide them along religious lines”.

Church groups have ‘track record’

The government said 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”.

As a result of the cap, “some faith groups have felt unable to open new free schools and felt discouraged about bringing existing schools into academy trusts”.

“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,” said Gillian Keegan.

“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.”

New SEND faith schools?

Today’s consultation will also “explore how to maximise the benefits that high quality academy trusts deliver, and in particular how to improve provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) by opening special faith-based academies”.

They said it was “currently not possible for special schools to open as academies and be designated with faith status”. This is government policy, rather than a legislative block.

But Evans said the creation of special faith-based academies “also raises ethical issues concerning the imposition of religion on children with special educational needs and disabilities”.

“We will be keen to ensure that SEND provision is not used to expose vulnerable children to religious proselytising.”

Proposed schools will still need to follow a “rigorous process” to open, the government said.

“Any new school must be approved by the secretary of state and proposers must be able to demonstrate their commitment to community cohesion and how they will promote British Values alongside a knowledge rich curriculum.”

‘We can serve the needs of more children’

Nigel Genders, chief education officer at the Church of England, said “by enabling Church of England special schools, we can serve the needs of more children in more communities, irrespective of their faith background”.

Nigel Genders
Nigel Genders

The Catholic Education Service has said it wants to open free schools once the cap is lifted, and highlighted examples of places it had wanted to put schools but had been prevented by the cap, such as Stoke-on-Trent and Rotherham, and said it was considering one in East Sussex.

The organisation said it already had seven non-maintained Catholic SEND schools, three independent SEND schools and sixteen other independent schools approved for SEND provision.

Bishop of Leeds Marcus Stock, who chairs the CES, said dioceses were “well placed to respond to differing local educational demands around the country, including the provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Parents can welcome this also”. 

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