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Change of Education Secretary raises hopes for faith free schools

Will Damian Hinds make good the Conservative pledge on relaxing entry conditions for faith free schools - or will he have too much else on his plate?

    New Education Secretary Damian Hinds
    New Education Secretary Damian Hinds

     A senior Jewish education figure, welcoming the appointment of Damian Hinds as Education Secretary this week, told me, “We are in a new world”.

    His predecessor Justine Greening may not have been hostile to faith schools but she did nothing particularly helpful for them either, even if  she met the Chief Rabbi early in her tenure. 

    The rejection on her watch of both applications for a Jewish secondary free school in London a year ago, even though it was a decision taken by Department for Education officials and not by her, hardly went down well within the Jewish community. One wonders if the same would have happened in the days of Nicky Morgan or Michael Gove at the head of the DfE.

    A test of Mr Hinds’s faith-school friendliness will be whether he finally acts on the Conservative pledge to lift the restrictions on entry to free schools, which are permitted to select only half their pupils according to faith.

    The Catholic Church in particular has lobbied for the removal of the cap and Mr Hinds supported the Church in a Commons debate three years ago, arguing the cap was “inhibiting the creation of new quality schools”.

    But the Conservatives are clearly constrained by the loss of their majority last summer. Since any change will be opposed by those who feel faith schools already enjoy enough privileges as it, the government may be less inclined to push forward controversial measures if it can possibly help it.

    In theory, easing the entry rules for free schools could benefit the Charedi community, enabling more of its schools to enter the state system and relieving the financial pressure. However, there are still conditions attached to becoming a free school —  such as agreeing to teach evolution — that would remain unwelcome for parts of the Orthodox right, and Mr Hinds is unlikely to relax those.

    He could choose, however, to  address some of the Charedi grievances oagainst Ofsted by amending inspection guidelines so that schools would no longer be expected to talk about sexual orientation.

    No doubt, his door will be open to the Chief Rabbi. But a change of minister could make little difference since the bigger issues of school funding and university tuition fees at the top of his in-tray may not leave him time for much else.

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