DfE to scrap faith admissions cap for free schools

The government intends to lift the cap on the number of pupils oversubscribed free schools can select based on their faith. Under the current arrangements, introduced in 2010, new faith free schools In England which have more applicants than capacity can only fill a maximum of 50 per cent of their places using faith-based admissions criteria.

The Department for Education (DfE) has launched a consultation on lifting this cap, which it says has led to some faith groups not opening new free schools. For example, it is believed to have hindered plans to open more Catholic free schools, as canon law prevents them from rejecting prospective pupils on the basis of their Catholic faith. The consultation also includes a plan to enable new faith special academies to be opened. It is currently not possible for special schools to open as academies and be designated with faith status. The government says its plans will ‘create more good school places and create strong multi-academy trusts around the country where there is demand’.

It is also intended that existing free schools would be able to take advantage of any new arrangements, but would need to both apply to vary their funding agreement as well as consult on any change to their admission arrangements in order to do so. Currently, 95 of the 508 open free schools have a faith designation. In the consultation documents the DfE argues that the admissions cap policy had ‘not been particularly successful in achieving high levels of diversity within faith free schools as originally intended’.

The proposal has received a mixed response from religious groups, secular organisations and sector unions. Former education secretary and Catholic Union vice president Ruth Kelly said ‘Lifting the cap will finally allow Catholics to join other faith groups in being able to open free schools. This decision is well-earned recognition of the success of our schools and a vote of confidence in Catholic education in general’. However, 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.’

The Church of England’s chief education officer, Nigel Genders welcomed the creation of faith special schools, commenting: ‘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. But Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, said the creation of these schools raised ‘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.’

Meanwhile, Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the ASCL education leaders union, said the admissions cap had provided ‘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. 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.’

Endorsing the proposals, education secretary Gillian Keegan commented: ‘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.’

The consultation, which is open until 20 June 2024, can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/8xzshuhf

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