Family & Education

Charedi schools look forward to major boost over plans to remove entry cap

Faith free schools can only choose half their pupils on the basis of religion – but the government is proposing to remove the cap


Pupils at Lubavitch Senior Girls, a faith school in Stamford Hill

V Government plans to lift admission restrictions on faith free schools could pave the way for more Charedi schools to enter the state system.

If the change goes ahead, David Landau, chair of Chinuch UK, the umbrella group for the strictly Orthodox education sector, said “it would be a positive thing”.

Chinuch UK was due to discuss the plan – announced by Education Secretary Gillian Keegan at the beginning of the month – in a meeting between Jewish groups and the Department for Education last Friday.

The growing Charedi community is served mostly by independent schools but rising costs are placing an ever greater burden on parents.

At present, free schools can guarantee only half their places to children on the basis of religion, which has been a deterrent to Charedi groups applying to open schools under the state system. The Catholic Church has also pulled back from opening new schools because it cannot fully control admissions.

Lipi Werjuka, director of school management consultants SCBM Services, said: “Lifting the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions in free schools is a positive step, providing more children the opportunity to receive an education aligned with their family’s values and beliefs.

“We have had a number of enquiries from schools in the Orthodox Jewish sector expressing an interest in setting up new Orthodox Jewish free schools, but these have not been viable within the current rules.”

Schools minister Damian Hinds told the JC that the government wants to “move at pace” to lift the 50 per cent cap, which would not require primary legislation to implement.

A public consultation on the change launched last week will close on June 20 with the government aiming to publish its response in the autumn.

Although the older system of voluntary-aided status allows faith schools full control over entry, local council approval is needed to open schools under that path. In practice, few new voluntary-aided schools have opened in recent years and the government favours free schools as part of its broader aim to encourage multi-academy trusts.

“Unlike voluntary-aided schools, free schools would be able to join such trusts, which have underpinned the big improvement that we’ve seen… in school standards [and] results for children,” Hinds said.

“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 added.

Chinuch UK will be seeking more detail on whether independent schools would be able to apply for free school status, Landau said.

The organisation represents around 70 schools and Landau believes a “decent number” would be interested in going into the state sector. Chinuch UK has been exploring the possibility of setting up a multi-academy trust as a framework for strictly Orthodox state schools. “Chinuch UK could run the trust, which would would give the government satisfaction about quality and professionalism,” Landau said.

Philanthropist Benjamin Perl, who has been a leading advocate for Jewish faith schools, believes the lifting of the entry cap would spur the opening of more schools across the community.

“Private schools are too expensive for most of the population,” he said.

It is only religious groups that “have an interest in opening new schools for a massively growing numbers of children,” he claimed. “Even non-observant parents don’t mind if children at a young age learn about the Ten Commandments.”

If the entry cap were abolished, he predicted it could lead to three or four more Jewish schools in  Hertfordshire, where the Jewish population has been growing.

Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis, who “warmly welcomed” the government’s proposal, said 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”.

But a dissident voice came from Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead Synagogue, who is president of the Accord Coalition, an advocacy group that believes religion should not be used as a criterion to select pupils in faith schools.

The government’s move, 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.”

He added: “We need to work hard to avoid multi-faith Britain becoming multi-fractious.”

The cap on places was designed to encourage greater diversity within free schools but this has not been as successful as originally intended, the government conceded.

According to data published by the DfE, 82 per cent of pupils in Jewish free schools are white; three per cent are Asian; two per cent are black; one per cent are Chinese; five per cent mixed race. The remainder are of other ethnicities or are unclassfied.

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

While a Jewish free school at present can only reserve half its places for Jewish children, in practice other Jewish children can be admitted on different grounds, such as living close to the school. The government has also proposed to allow groups to open special needs schools as academies with a designated religious character. Although there are special free schools with a religious ethos, the change would give them greater freedom, such as appointing senior leaders on the basis of their religion.

Raisel Friedman, of the Jewish schools network PaJeS, 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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