Religion-based free school plans 
‘raise fears over divided society’

CAMPAIGNERS have warned that free schools could be socially divisive after successfully forcing the Government to reveal details of all the groups who have applied to open them.

A quarter of applications for free schools over the past two years were from faith groups, the official data suggests.

However the British Humanist Association (BHA) says it believes the number of plans for faith based schools would be “50 per cent higher”.

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The list shows that failed bids to open free schools in Yorkshire include applications from a private school which teaches children from the Plymouth Brethren Church and a private Christian School which teaches creationism. There was also an application from a private Islamic school in Dewsbury while in Leeds there have been successful bids for a Jewish free school and a Sikh ethos school.

Richy Thompson, from the British Humanist Association, said: “Although some of these applications are being turned down we are seeing an increase in the number of faith schools and this is worrying in terms of what it means for segregation and community cohesion.”

The data published by the Department for Education (DfE) shows there have been 57 separate groups applying to open free schools in Yorkshire since 2010. Unsuccessful applications from private faith schools include Barnsley and Bradford Christian Schools and Bethany School in Sheffield which wanted to create a free school in the city which would have taught creationism.

Other applications which were not backed included from the independent Plymouth Brethren Northmoor School in Cottingham and the Islamic Paradise Primary in Dewsbury. The DfE has received 71 applications from the region in the three waves of free school applications – although 14 of these were applicants who submitted more than one bid.

The data was published after the Department for Education (DfE) lost a bid to withhold the material, and was ordered to release it by the Information Commissioner. In a letter explaing the department’s stance Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Information Commissioner that there had been “personal attacks” on individuals involved in submitting applications.

In response, the Commissioner, Christopher Graham insisted that the DfE’s arguments for keeping the information private “had clearly failed to convince”.

The data was originally requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The DfE received three similar requests to publish details of the groups applying to open free schools under Freedom of Information requests, which it rejected. The Yorkshire Post’s request for a list of free school applicants from the region was also rejected.

Following an appeal by the BHA in July last year the Information Commission ruled that the details requested were in the public interest and should be released. The DfE appealed the ruling, but last month, the Information Tribunal dismissed the appeal and upheld the Commissioner’s decision.

In his letter to the Information Commissioner, Mr Gove said: “There are people who are ideologically opposed to the free schools programme and some of the opposition to the programme has gone further than normal healthy debate. We are aware of personal attacks on individuals who simply want to improve educational standards and choice locally. Organisations opposed to Free Schools have run hostile publicity campaigns. In some cases these have become highly personal, vilifying individuals involved in opening a free school.

“We have been told of instances where teachers have lost their jobs simply by virtue of their association with a Free School application. One proposer has even told us that they have been the subject of a death threat.”

Mr Graham replied: “While I note your strongly held views, strongly expressed, I will only observe that both the Commissioner and the Tribunal have taken careful account of all relevant factors in arriving at a balanced judgment as to where the public interest lies.”