Free school entry rules challenged

The Government has no plans to lift the quota which limits free schools to selecting only half their pupils according to religion.

New draft guidelines on admissions issued by the Department for Education state that when free schools have more applicants than places, "at least 50 per cent of places are to be allocated without reference to faith".

But Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, chair of the National Assocation of Orthodox Jewish Schools, called for the "disappointing" policy to be challenged. The whole point of Jewish schools, he said, was "the ability of the community to educate children in an all-Jewish environment.

"Najos hopes that the community will join in lobbying the government to remove the obstacles to Jewish schools."

Free schools were introduced by the government to enable parents to set up state-aided schools without having to go through local council bureaucracy. But they were not allowed the same level of control over admissions as existing religious voluntary-aided schools. A Jewish free school can reserve only half of its places for Jewish pupils, but additional Jewish children can enter on other criteria such as whether they live near the school.

Recently announced plans for an Orthodox free primary in Golders Green have come under fire from parts of the Orthodox community because of the possibility of Jewish children mixing with non-Jewish pupils. But supporters believe that its diet of intensive Jewish textual studies is unlikely to attract non-Jewish applicants.

The first free schools due to open their doors in September include two new Jewish primaries: the cross-communal Eden Primary in Haringey and the Orthodox Etz Chaim in Mill Hill.

Although Eden's website makes clear that it would welcome non-Jewish pupils, the majority of its intake of 30 pupils appear to be Jewish. Of the 15 who were offered places on grounds of proximity, only two did not also have a certificate of Jewish practice.

Peter Kessler, Eden's chair of governors, said: "We were not expecting any non-Jewish families in the first year, so we are delighted to have some."

Eden's goal, he said, was "to teach children about Judaism, while encouraging tolerance across the community and also between the Jewish and wider community. As such, the free school model is a perfect match for our ethos."

Eden's entry policy for the 50 per cent of places allocated according to Jewish criteria is broader than most Jewish schools: as well as shul membership, attendance, previous Jewish education or charitable involvement, parents can also cite evidence of home observance such as Friday night Shabbat meals.

Etz Chaim declined to give a breakdown of its pupils.

    Last updated: 3:13pm, June 30 2011