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Faith schools reform: Everything you need to know

The government would allow existing faith free schools to apply to lift the 50 per cent admissions cap under plans to scrap the rule, it has emerged.

And special academies with a faith “ethos” would be allowed to apply to upgrade to a faith “character”.

The Department for Education has published a consultation on plans announced today to scrap the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions to oversubscribed free schools and the block on faith special academies.

The announcement this morning referred only to new schools, but the consultation document reveals plans to let some existing schools apply for the freedoms.

Here’s what you need to know…

1. Free schools could prioritise faith ‘for up to 100%’

Removing the 50 per cent cap would be delivered by “removing restrictions” on faith based admissions in the free school funding agreement and updating the admissions code.

The change would mean oversubscribed free schools would be able to “adopt arrangements” within their oversubscription criteria “that allow the priority for admission on the basis of faith for up to 100 per cent of those admitted”.

Where a free school designated with a religious character is not oversubscribed, it “must continue to admit all pupils regardless of faith and would be unable to refuse admission to pupils not of the faith”.

2. Existing religious free schools can apply

The change would apply to all free schools designated with a religious character, “including open schools”.

Existing free schools designated with a religious character who wish to remove the cap “would need to apply to vary their funding agreement to affect the change”.

They would “also need to consult on a change to their admission arrangements should they wish to change their faith-based oversubscription criteria as a result”.

At present, 95 of the 508 open free schools have a faith designation.

3. 50% cap hasn’t achieved ‘planned diversity’

The DfE said the admissions cap policy, introduced in 2010, had “not been particularly successful in achieving high levels of diversity within faith free schools as originally intended”.

They said that when measuring by ethnicity data, the intake for free schools designated for minority faiths such as Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Hinduism, is “largely made up of pupils of similar ethnic backgrounds”.

“While ethnicity data is not a perfect match to religious affiliation, national census data suggests strong correlations between religion and ethnicity, and it does demonstrate a high degree of diversity is not apparent in faith free schools that are subject to the 50 per cent rule.”

4. VA school drive did not bear fruit

The government announced plans to scrap the cap in 2016, but plans were shelved in 2018 in favour of a move to make it easier to open new voluntary-aided schools.

But the DfE admitted today that scheme “resulted in one new Catholic school which opened in September 2022 and one Church of England school which is currently expected to open in September 2024”.

There are “no plans to run a further round of the scheme”.

5. Special academies can apply for faith ‘character’…

At present, special academies and free schools can only operate with a “faith ethos”, not a “faith character”.

Faith character gives schools freedoms to make staffing decisions based on religion and over religious education, for example.

Ministers propose a change of policy that would allow new special free schools to apply for faith character designation.

This would also apply to existing special academies that already have a registered “faith ethos”, and to existing maintained, independent or non-maintained special schools that want to become a new special academy.

6. …but not all freedoms will apply

The DfE said it anticipated that the proposal “would be of interest to and therefore affect, a relatively small number of schools, especially to begin with”.

It said special academies granted religious character under the scheme would benefit from “some, but not all, of the specific ‘freedoms’ that apply to mainstream schools”.

These include freedoms relating to “staffing, religious education, and collective worship”.

However, “they would not be able to admit pupils based on faith”.

7. EHCP parents can request faith SEND school…

For pupils with an education, health and care plan, parents are already allowed to request a denominational school.

Parents “would retain this right under the new policy and be able to request a special academy that has been designated with a religious character”.

8. …but LAs can block ‘unsuitable’ placements

However, if the local authority considers the placement would be “unsuitable for the individual pupil’s need or would not be efficient for the school or the wider system, then the preference can be superseded”.

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