Family & Education

Chief Rabbi backs move to lift entry cap on religious free schools

Schools Minister Damian Hinds says the government wants to move ‘at pace’


Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (Getty Images)

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, has welcomed the government’s proposal to lift the restrictions on the number of pupils free schools can select on the basis of faith.

Under current rules, free schools can admit only half their pupils according to religion but the Department for Education announced on Wednesday that is proposing to abolish the cap.

Rabbi Mirvis said, “I have consistently believed that a fully immersive faith-based education can provide an excellent foundation for ensuring that young people become outstanding citizens of our country, as I have so often seen demonstrated by the graduates of Jewish schools.

“That is why I warmly welcome the government’s announcement to lift the 50 per cent cap for admissions to faith schools.”

Schools Minister Damian Hinds told the JC that “we want to move at pace” and it was feasible that the new arrangements could come into force before an election,.

“What we have found is that through the free schools programme is that some fantastic, really high performing, strong schools have been created and we want that to be open to everybody in all places,” he said.

A public consultation on the lifting of the cap will run until June 20.

Support for the government’s plan has also come from PaJeS, the Jewish schools network, whose assistant director Raisel Friedman said, “This acknowledges the diversity within our faith schools and ensures that pupils can actually attend schools that they choose as best for them.”

But Rabbi Jonathan Romain, president of the Coalition Accord, which believes that pupils in state schools should not be selected on the basis of faith at all, said abolishing the cap was “highly regrettable”.

The result, he said, “would be to create religious ghettos, where children of different faiths grow up as strangers to each other. Let faith flourish at home or in place of worship, but not be used to divide our children. If we want an open tolerant society, then we have to have an open tolerant educational system that produces it. We need to work hard to avoid multi-faith Britain becoming multi-fractious.

Progressive Judaism has so far not issued a comment on the proposal.

The introduction of free schools in 2010 enabled sponsors to apply directly to the DfE to open a school rather than have to go through a local authority. They have been part of a drive to encourage schools to become part of multi-academy trusts rather than be run under the umbrella of local councils.

In practice, most pupils at Jewish schools are Jewish because few children from other backgrounds apply to them.

Six years ago, the government decided against a similar lifting of the cap, instead deciding to invite applications for new religious schools under the older voluntary-aided system (where schools are part of the local authority).

Mr Hinds said, “What has changed now is that we are much further along this journey we’ve been on - on the development of free schools and academies, which has underpinned the big improvement that we’ve seen… in school standards, results for children.

“Even compared to five or six years ago, there’s a lot more schools that are now academies than were, including more religious schools — and that’s the direction of travel in the system.”

Unlike voluntary-aided schools, free schools are able to join multi-academy trusts and gain from sharing best practice and resources with other schools, he explained.

In its consultation, the government has acknowledged that the 50 per cent faith cap had deterred some groups from opening new schools.

The cap had been designed to encourage greater diversity within free schools but this had not been successful as originally intended, it conceded.

According to data published by the DfE, 82 per cent of pupils in Jewish free schools are white; 3 per cent Asian; 2 per cent black; I per cent Chinese; 5 per cent mixed; 2 per cent other ethnic; and five per cent unclassified.

There is no breakdown on what percentage of pupils in Jewish free schools are non-Jewish.

Just one per cent of pupils in Muslim free schools are classified as white, 2 per cent in Hindu schools and 3 per cent in Sikh schools.

The government is also proposing to allow groups to open special needs schools as academies with a designated religious character. There are special free schools with a religious ethos such as Kisharon Noe but the change would give them greater freedom, for example to appoint senior leaders on the basis of their religion.

Friedman said, “The additional faith designation for special schools is something that we have brought to government attention for many years and will be appreciated by our Jewish schools.”

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