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Call to end Church's refusal to open new schools

16 January 2015 | by Joanna Moorhead

A leading Catholic educationalist is urging the Church in England and Wales to consider reversing its decision not to open any new Catholic academies.

Director of the Archdiocese of Southwark’s education commission, Dr Anne Bamford, said that only new schools could meet growing demand, despite the Government continuing to place a 50 per cent cap on places reserved for Catholics at over-subscribed schools.

In the week when applications closed for primary school places for next September, and as the Local Government Association warned that an extra £12 billion will need to be found to create places for around 900,000 more pupils in English schools over the next decade, Dr Bamford said: “We don’t proceed because of the cap, but the time has come when I think we need to think about whether to reconsider it.

“At present our hands are being tied, but there’s clearly a great deal of demand for Catholic school places and we want to see a situation where we are able to give a school place to every Catholic family who want one.

“What we need to ask ourselves is, might 50 per cent be better than 0 per cent which is the number of new places we are able to provide at the moment?”

In what was widely perceived as a snub to the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales announced in November 2013 that it would not open any new schools unless the 50 per cent cap was dropped. Existing Catholic schools that convert to academies are exempt from the cap.

Dr Bamford said clarification was needed on whether or not the Government was willing to consider applications for new schools that were not academies or free schools, after the current Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, seemed to suggest this was the case during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

At present virtually the only new schools to get the green light are academies or free schools – and the clear ruling where they are concerned is that, in cases of oversubscription, which is very common with Catholic schools, a cap of 50 per cent must be enforced on Catholic pupils.

Because this raises the likelihood that the Church would be setting up academies that would then be forced to turn Catholic families away, the policy of the bishops and the Catholic Education Service has been that there will be no new church academies.

In the 14 months since the Catholic bishops took their stand the pressure on school places has grown and is set to grow further. For Catholic schools such as St John Fisher primary in Pinner, that has meant a second expansion plan – but, as its head teacher Anne Lyons explained, hers is the only Catholic primary in her authority area, Harrow, which is even in a position to expand.

“We were built in 1973 as a one-form entry school for 250 pupils, and have since expanded to a two-form entry school for 430, and in September we took in a third reception class and will now be growing the school to three forms over the coming years,” she said.

“But other Catholic primaries in Harrow can’t expand, and we can’t open new schools because of the 50 per cent cap. Every Catholic primary school in Harrow, like every other primary, is oversubscribed, but most can’t do anything to meet the demand.”



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