Free schools faith cap 'a problem'

The Catholic Church is unlikely to open more of the Government's flagship free schools due to rules capping the number of faith pupils they could admit.

It is a "perverse disincentive" to say that only half of places at a Catholic free school can be reserved for pupils of the faith, according to Greg Pope, deputy director of the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales.

This admissions issue is "quite problematic" for the Church, he suggested, adding: "There's a cap on the number at free schools of 50% and that very much works against the establishment of Catholic free schools."

Free schools are state schools set up by parents, teachers, charities, faith groups and other organisations and there is presently just one Catholic free school, St Michael's Catholic School in Truro, Cornwall.

Mr Pope said: "When I discussed this with the Secretary of State earlier in the summer, the point I made to Mr Gove was we would be unlikely to open a new school unless there was demand for a new school.

"If there was demand for a new 1,000-pupil Catholic school, why would we open a free school if we had to turn away pupils on the grounds that they are Catholic while accepting others on the grounds that they are not Catholic?"

Mr Pope said the Catholic Church does have the option of opening up voluntary aided (VA) schools which are state schools run by a foundation or trust, quite often a faith group.

Mr Pope, who spoke as the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales published its annual census looking at the make-up of its schools, said that if they wanted a new school to be an academy - which has more freedoms than local council-run schools - they would have to open a VA school and convert.

He said Mr Gove had been clear that the option to open new VA schools is still available but added that if the Government wants to encourage more free schools then altering this cap would be "the sensible thing to do."

A Department for Education document for groups applying to open free schools says: "Free schools designated as having a religious character will have to balance the needs of (a) children of the particular faith and (b) children of other faiths or none; and when oversubscribed, will have to limit those admitted on the basis of faith to 50% of their yearly intake."