Gove: free schools 'can still be totally Jewish'

By Jessica Elgot, July 22, 2010
Michael Gove

Michael Gove

Jewish parents hoping to set up new schools under the coalition government's flagship education proposals may have to take pupils of different faiths - at the expense of Jewish pupils.

Empowering parents to set up free schools was a key pledge in the Conservative election campaign, but those schools must take 50 per cent of pupils without reference to religion.

The 50 per cent ceiling on faith admissions for new academies was introduced under Labour, but the Coalition government has decided not to lift it, so it will apply to new free schools as well.

The ceiling does not, however, apply to existing Jewish schools if they plan to convert to academy status. But it will apply to independent schools that wish to enter the state sector as an academy. Free schools and academies will manage their own curriculums and budgets, and be free from the local authority.

Education Secretary Michael Gove told the JC that new free schools could still have a clear Jewish ethos and once the 50 per cent quota had been reached, the remainder of places could be filled with Jewish children - as long as the admissions board did not enquire about faith.

He also confirmed the government would make it much easier for Jewish parents to set up voluntary-aided schools, including removing the local authority veto on new schools.

Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies, said: "Unfortunately it looks like free schools are not going to be the panacea Jewish parents thought they would be.

"This has been a bombshell for parents who had hoped to be able to set up new schools for Jewish children quickly."

Parents in Mill Hill and Borehamwood had already begun to make plans for new Jewish primary schools. The Mill Hill school planning group chair Adam Dawson called the decision not to lift the fifty per cent rule "outrageous". He said: "Faith schools have been victims of their own success. It's political tokenism at the expense of a good education for our children."

The group had already submitted a free school proposal, but they have not yet decided how to proceed further.

Dr Alan Hirschowitz, who heads Jewish Primary Education for South Hertfordshire (JPESH), said they now plan to set up a voluntary-aided school.

Michael Gove:

Well-run faith schools make a fantastic contribution to our education system, and none more so than Jewish faith schools. I was privileged to hand out the prizes at JFS this year and have twice visited Hasmonean, one of the very best comprehensives in the country.
As I said to the Board of Deputies, the fact that a socially comprehensive school like Hasmonean can be so successful shows the importance of ethos, values and a belief in social justice.
That’s why I’m unambiguous in my desire to see more Jewish schools, and Jewish schools playing a bigger role in improving our state system.
I know that, at secondary level, the Jewish community is increasingly well-catered for, but there is a real shortage of primary places — and I want to do what I can to help.

One way we’re doing this is making it easier to set up a new Voluntary-Aided school, simplifying the planning process for new schools which have been bedevilled by delays and political opposition in the past. Where there is a need for new faith schools on the traditional model, such as Yesodei Hatorah, we will do everything we can to provide support.

But the coalition is going further. We’ve expanded the last government’s academy programme, under which schools like Hasmonean will be able to acquire academy status, and the freedoms which come with it.

And we’ll also allow parents, philanthropists and teachers to establish new schools. I am keen to work with as many groups as possible from within the Jewish community to see new free schools set up. These new free schools won’t be able to select, but they can specify they want a faith character and choose up to 50 per cent of their students on that basis.

There is nothing to stop free schools being totally Jewish in their ethos.

Last updated: 3:49pm, July 22 2010