Free schools faith cap ‘problematic’ for Catholic Church

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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 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. “There is an issue with free schools which works against there being a huge number of Catholic free schools,” he said.

“There’s a cap on the number at free schools of 50 per cent 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. At the moment there is just one Catholic free school, in Truro, Cornwall.

Mr Pope said: “When I discussed this with the Secretary of State 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? That’s a perverse disincentive to me.”

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

Mr Pope said that if the Church wanted a new school to be an academy – which has more freedoms than local council-run schools – it would have to open a VA school and convert.

“That would get round the cap on admissions,” he said, adding, “that seems to me not the best way of doing it.”

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 per cent of their yearly intake.”