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Sikhs and Seventh Day Adventists are among many faith groups applying to set up free schools. But, as Jeremy Sutcliffe reports, the current model has very limited appeal for the Catholic Church
St Michael’s Catholic Small School in Truro was founded in 1998 and throughout its short existence had been run on a shoestring – funded by voluntary donations from parents. Three years ago, with only about 25 children on its register, it was facing an uncertain future.
Then the school saw a potential lifeline. The Coalition Government had announced plans to create a new programme of “free schools” and was inviting applications from parents, teachers, charities and other groups. The school’s bid was successful and in September 2012 it moved to a new home in the former County Grammar School building in Camborne, 18 miles away.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for us because we have got a new site with the old grammar school building, which is a fine granite building, and we’ve also got a new, purpose-built teaching block,” says principal Neil Anderson. The school’s future now looks secure after being given a £3.5 million grant to build new classrooms to accommodate its growing pupil population. Having reopened under the new name of St Michael’s Catholic Secondary School with 40 pupils a year ago, its numbers have now risen to 112 and there are plans to grow to more than 300 pupils over the next three years.
By securing state funding, it became not merely the only maintained Catholic secondary school in Cornwall but the first – and most likely to remain the only – Catholic free school in the country. Its unique status is both a source of pride for everyone associated with the school but also reflects the huge controversy that continues to rage around the Government’s free-schools policy nationally.
Having gained the support of both the local diocese in Plymouth and the wider Church, senior officials in the Catholic Education Service, or CES, have made clear its approval is a “one-off” and likely to remain so unless the Government changes its policy relating to free-school admissions.
The Department for Education defines free schools as “all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community”. Like academies, they are free from local authority control and receive state funding direct from the Government. Both free schools and academies can set their own pay and conditions for staff, have freedom around the delivery of the curriculum and the ability to change the lengths of terms and schooldays. Unlike academies, free schools must be brand new and cannot be converted from existing state schools. If affiliated to a particular faith, free schools and new academies are obliged to allocate half of all places to non-Catholic children if they become oversubscribed.The CES has been lobbying the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to persuade him to lift this cap.
Speaking last November after meeting Gove, Greg Pope, the CES’ then deputy director, explained that the bar on admitting Catholic children in those circumstances served as “a perverse disincentive”, saying: “If there was demand for a 1,000-pupil Catholic school, why would we open a free school and end up turning away Catholic pupils on the grounds that they are Catholics while accepting others on the grounds that they are not Catholic?”
Pope also pointed to a legal loophole that allows the Church to set up a traditional voluntary-aided school and then convert it to an academy as a way of getting around the cap. An example of this legal body-swerving is St Richard Reynolds Catholic College, a new voluntary-aided primary and secondary school in Richmond upon Thames, which opened in September this year. The college is now in the process of converting to an academy under the recently formed Diocese of Westminster Academy Trust.
Meanwhile, all “converter” Catholic academies – which previously existed as state schools – have been allowed to keep to their existing admissions procedures, a privilege denied to free schools. A spokeswoman for the CES said: “Free schools differ tremendously from converter academies. There are currently over 200 Catholic academies in England with more than a quarter of all Catholic secondary schools already converted to academy status.”
The Catholic Church’s firm stance against free schools – with the exception of St Michael’s – is clear from the latest wave of applications received from groups hoping to open schools in September 2014. Of the 263 applications listed on the Department for Education website, only one, Trinity Academy in Clapham, south-west London, says on its website that it will have “a Catholic ethos and character”. This secondary school, which is being launched by a group of local parents, has been approved by Gove but it is not supported by the local diocese. Anne Bamford, director of the Archdiocese of Southwark’s education commission, said: “Trinity Free School is not a Catholic school and there are plenty of places available in local Catholic secondary schools for parents seeking a Catholic education for their children.”
This is just one example of the many battles taking place across the country as local groups and organisations seek to establish new schools under the free-schools programme. Unlike academies, any sponsor can apply to open a free school, with or without the support of their local authority (and, it seems, the Catholic Church). This has led to a flood of applications not just from traditional academy sponsors – philanthropic business leaders, charitable trusts and the Church of England, for example – but from private businesses, parents, teachers and a variety of faith groups.
Of the latest wave of applications, just over a quarter (28 per cent) are to establish either “faith designation” or “faith ethos” schools. They include 24 Islamic schools, seven Church of England, seven Hindu, seven Sikh, two Seventh Day Adventist, one Maharishi, one Plymouth Brethren and one Jewish school. A total of 174 free schools have opened since September 2011 with at least 102 more approved for opening from September next year. Although in many cases the number of pupils involved is small, the rapid growth has not lessened the controversy surrounding them.
One example is the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby, which inspectors visited earlier this month. Ofsted had been called in after reports that female members of staff had been forced to wear headscarves and that pupils were being segregated in classrooms, with girls sitting at the back. The Ofsted report described the school as “dysfunctional” and “in chaos” and it has been given until next month to come up with an action plan or its funding arrangements will be terminated.
Elsewhere, new free schools have sprung up with a variety of high-profile backers, including Toby Young, journalist and Conservative supporter, founder of the West London Free School in Hammersmith, and Peter Hyman, Tony Blair’s former speech-writer, who is head teacher of School 21 in Stratford, east London. Many of these schools are highly innovative, some of them follow particular educational theories (there are a number of Steiner schools, for instance) and some of them could be described as downright wacky. Controversy never seems to be far away from the free-school movement.
The most recent furore is over the appointment of Annaliese Briggs as head of Pimlico Primary in central London. The 27-year-old was appointed principal in March despite having no teaching qualifications. Within weeks of the school opening in September, she was reported to have left “to pursue other opportunities in primary education”. Her hasty departure raised questions about the relaxed rules that allow free schools to appoint unqualified staff – a policy supported by numerous right-wing think tanks, including Civitas, for whom Briggs, an English literature graduate, had worked as a junior member of staff.
The Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, has said that Labour will keep “good” free schools open and give encouragement to groups of parents, teachers and social entrepreneurs who might want to set up new ones. However, he insisted that free schools under a future Labour Government could only be set up in areas where there is a shortage of places, they must employ fully qualified teachers and had to be financially accountable. In a speech on Thursday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, was expected to echo Labour’s point that free schools should employ only qualified teachers. Clegg also said free schools should adhere to the national curriculum and comply with new standards on school meals.
Hundreds of miles away from the politics of Westminster, Cornwall’s newest and only Catholic state secondary school is taking full advantage of an opportunity to create something special for local children – of all faiths and none.“We’ve got a lot of Christian children – Anglican, Methodist, Nonconformist as well as Catholic, all coming here,” says Neil Anderson. “The parents like the Catholic ethos and find it does support their faith background. There’s an ecumenical aspect to the school, but we also have children of no faith. I’ve got some children who are looking for a smaller environment and they love the school. My aim is for everyone who comes here to grow in their love and understanding of faith so they will leave with a positive experience of a Catholic school. That’s part of our mission.
“We are not just creating a Catholic school. We want to create a school which is human- scale, has smaller classes of around 20. My view from a Catholic perspective is that education is about creating an environment in which everyone has a wonderful time in a school which allows them to really know and love Our Lord and the Church.”