UK Free School Advocates Call for Fewer Faith-Based Restrictions

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A charity that has been instrumental in the opening of free schools across Britain is pushing for the removal of barriers that would keep faith groups from opening free schools of their own.

The New Schools Network says it would like to see the rules pertaining to free schools that place a limit on the number of locations allocated due to religion be removed.  As a result of these rules, Catholic free schools have not yet been able to open.

Currently, free school regulations say a faith group can open a free school so long as religion-based priority is only given at half of the locations opened.

However, this rule could be seen as an obstacle to faith groups looking to open a location.  To date, less than one-fifth of free schools are linked to religious groups, which is lower than the state sector average.

Nick Timothy, NSN director, says that such limitations have prevented “high-calibre school providers” from opening, reports Javier Espinoza for The Telegraph.  He added that on average, faith schools see a higher rate of ethnic diversity, are a more popular choice among parents, and offer students a higher quality education than elsewhere.

The government would like to see 500 new free schools open around the country. All new schools opened by academy trusts must be designated as free schools.

Funded in part by the Department of Education, the New Schools Network claims the small number of faith free schools to be the most oversubscribed in the primary school sector.  In addition, it says a “significant untapped potential” exists among current school providers.

In particular, the NSN talked about Catholic schools, saying that over 85% of children who attend these schools in the state sector “are in good or outstanding schools, compared to 80 per cent in all schools”.  They also state that Catholic schools have a higher percentage of ethnic minority students than average.

Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service said: “We remain open to the idea of Free Schools, but are currently unable to engage with this flagship programme due to the cap on faith-based admissions.  The cap prevents the Church meeting demands from Catholic parents for Catholic places and could cause schools to turn Catholic families away on the grounds that they are Catholics. To do so contravenes not only Canon Law but also common sense.”

The Accord group, which believes schools should not be able to select students based on religion, wrote to the education secretary to advocate for the retention of the 50% cap on free schools, reports Sean Coughlan for the BBC.

Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers, said that free schools are paid for by local taxpayers, and that as such, children should not be excluded from the school of their parents’ choosing based solely on faith.

A spokesman for the Department of Education added that the idea behind requiring oversubscribed faith free schools to open 50% of their locations to all students is to reduce segregation and allow students to experience multiple faiths.