26 October 2013, The Tablet

Free but fettered

by Jeremy Sutcliffe

Tablet Education

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.”

What do you think?


You can post as a subscriber user...

User Comments (19)

Comment by: Mark Lee
Posted: 18/07/2015 10:47:47

I am glad that things turned out well for Philip Jakob, who is right that saying one thing yet doing another is worrying. In the annual report for the Charity Commissioners and the Diicesan Vision, Collaborative Ministry and the Diocesan Pastoral Council feature high. Yet in a seismic change they are ignored.

Bob Hayes, I think, has misinterpreted salaried Catholics as bureaucrats.

I don't think JT that anything I wrote suggested "ignore the Financial shortfall and Do Nothing". What I would have expected was a thoughtful, thorough and inclusive consideration of options, followed my a thoughtful and caring implementation of change. Those things appear to have been lacking.

On the other hand raises useful points that The Church needs to live within its means. True. None-the-less how it responds is the key.

Paul reflects the view of many that paid staff in Dioceses are bureaucrats. Yet this is often not the reality. Often they are committed pro-active Catholics who also need to earn a living.

Thank You to all who have commented. I may not be right. I remain convinced that as lay Catholics we need to speak up and air issues, to help our Church be the most Christlike and effective as it can be. I look forward to how the Diocese responds to the debate or whether it just ignores it as "job done".

i wish you all well, Mark

Comment by: Mark Lee
Posted: 18/07/2015 10:32:20

Dear Mike the Lion Heart

Sad you have interpreted my blog in this way. I don't think I have questionned anybody's Faith and hard as I try I cannot see Why you describe the blog as wingey or sanctimonious. I shared my letter to The Tablet (that was then developed into the Blog, at the request of The Tablet) and he thanked me for airing my views through The Tablet.

Thank You Tony for the kind words. I was sorry to read that you had been a victim of cuts. I haven't though likened anybody to the Pharisees. I think though that the manner of planning and change lacked skill and failed to display exemplary Standards & Gospel values.

I think Jim McCrea that the issue was that those dismissed were not Priests and cost money.

Fr Arul (Parish of Larvik: Norway) misses that I do ask the Diocese to convince me, and the wider community, if my Assessment is wrong. In the absence of more information, I can only comment on what I know.

Denis raises a valid challenge whether the Diocese has been financially astute over the years. I do not though see that the ministries carried out by the Commissions axed were a bureaucracy.

Bluepoles I think places too much reliance on Bishops being exclusive Decision Makers on every aspect of Church life. Collaborative Ministry, the publicly stated, even if now not practised policy of the Brentwood Diocese, does not deny the apostolic right of The Pope and his Bishops, guided by The Holy Spirit, to interpret the fundamentals of our Faith.

Comment by: Mark Lee
Posted: 18/07/2015 10:13:07

As the author of this blog, I thought I should respond to the comments you have been making.

I think oscarw is right that there are unanswered questions. Laity who know of the changes and certainly some Priests wonder this.

I am sad if mikethelionheart feels anything I have written is an unfounded accusation.

Jim McCrea thinks I have questionned other people's Faith and I wonder how my professional judgement of the facts known to me, plus my Catholic Faith, can be interpreted like that. In any event: when I wrote to The Tablet, I sent Bishop Alan a copy and he replied positively that I was airing these issues through The Tablet. Whilst The Tablet asked my to write a blog rather than publishing my letter, my blog was essentially what I had shared with Bishop Alan. Maybe Jim you will think differently in light of that information?

Surely we have a duty, in any event as Catholics to speak up when we fear harm to The Church?

Cleopas raises valid questions. I don't know if there was specific fund raising for these Diocesan ministries. I do know they were filled by committed Catholics who also needed income and unlike Priests are not provided with housing etc.

Margaret_M_C raises valid points. Indeed consultation and dialogue with the wider Church and with the staff involved might have produced the same result. Change that is collaborative is more likely to succeed. I do not know whether Bishop Alan made all the decisions or decided on the approach. Maybe others did?

Comment by: oscarw
Posted: 13/07/2015 14:31:05

The Pope also said a 'Church for the Poor' so one wonders if there'll be resources to support this mission now that the Social Justice commission has finished. Interesting how this commission was chopped while liturgy and music appears to have escaped the axe. Are parishes expected to pick up the advocacy work too? Who will equip the parishes to lead and engage in social action?

Comment by: mikethelionheart
Posted: 10/07/2015 22:01:35

The unfounded accusations and slanders of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.

And, above all, wait to see which diocese decline and which thrive.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 10/07/2015 02:47:24

How dare Mark question people's faith?

“The actions of (sic) men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Misattributed to James Joyce) John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), Book I, Chapter II, paragraph 3.

And, above all, people who have no vote tend to vote with their feet.

Comment by: cleopas
Posted: 09/07/2015 22:59:29

Sadly this non collaborative attitude has been a common feature of English Dioceses in the last year -think of Shrewsbury and Portsmouth. Just one question – did anybody fund raise for theses vital ministries in Brentwood?
But what is most tragic is that those who have lost their jobs are not just ‘bureaucrats,’ but dedicated workers with ministries and gifts as true and valid as any Bishop or Priest. By your fruits ye shall know them. In five years lets re-visit the numbers of Mass attendees in these Dioceses.

Comment by: Margaret_M_C
Posted: 07/07/2015 02:11:11

Some comments seem to have missed the point. It's not what you do so much as how you do it. Consultation might have produced the same end result, or it might have come up with some better alternatives .... or even a realisation and willingness to act on more money needing to be given. Either way, it's about bringing the people with you. Dictatorship in the Church is no longer acceptable, particularly in financial matters where bishops are not experts in the field.

Comment by: Mike the lion heart
Posted: 06/07/2015 12:01:09

A very wingey and sanctimonious article.

How dare you question people's faith, mark.

Comment by: Tony
Posted: 05/07/2015 17:58:36

Well said, Mark. A courageous vox in deserto. I too can speak, from personal, experience. As a full-time parish director of music and liturgy, I fell victim to the financial expedience axe. And my words of warning to the pastor came true; Mass attendance dropped, a vibrant music and liturgy program was replaced by a lackluster weekly 'performance'. And, worst of all, the bottom line was hit; collections dropped. In the memorable words of Pete Seeger, 'when will they ever learn?' Despite there being some very wise and wonderful pastors (including bishops), the arrogance of the power-mongers can be compared only to that of the the Pharisees at the time of Jesus, who not only had all the answers but displayed an appalling lack of both wisdom and compassion. Well done, Mark.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 04/07/2015 19:47:18

I notice that those named as being redundant are all women!

Was there a clericalist mindset at work here, perchance?

Comment by: Parish of Larvik (Norway)
Posted: 04/07/2015 09:26:11

I read your comment. I perceive that your comment has already judge the diocese, as it is not keeping up to its values. You have also mentioned that the diocese does not have enough income. I am living in a diocese for the time being in Sri Lanka to help the new diocese, with so big a debt. No religious institution come forward to help to tide over.
People who are poor and were used to receive from the church, irrespective of religion, are not willing to buy properties that the bishop and his administrative collaborators are willing to sell.
The bishop is looking for avenues to create funds to open up new missions.
If the catholic population is not supportive and has not enough to contribute, I do not see how will the new bishop run the diocese with expenditure that he cannot cope with. It may be the parishes who need to rethink to support the diocese.Fr.Arul

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 04/07/2015 06:40:12

Mark Lee names just three of the commissions that Brentwood's parishioners fund; parishioners who are often hard pressed to keep their own jobs and whose numbers are dwindling and ageing. Brentwood Diocese has been in denial over the issue of funding for many years. The absurd reality is that tiny parishes which are solvent, are financing a bureaucratic giant that is not. That is not the "poor church" that Pope Francis has in mind, rather it is an unworkable situation that cannot continue.

Comment by: Bluepoles
Posted: 04/07/2015 01:43:25

Once the Prince of the Church makes a decision it is the same as God making it as he has been 'ontologically chnged' at ordination - could also mean 'deludsional' and incompetent. There are many such decisions being made in the USA and Australia and they all have to do with keeping the Prince of the Church in luxury and making sure he keeps the funds rolling for his personal pet projects. Dont expect a review of such incompetence and meanness.

Comment by: Philip Jakob
Posted: 03/07/2015 21:53:55

As one whose post as Director of Music for the Cathedral & Diocese of Hallam was declared redundant last year after 20 years of service I extend my sympathies to those who have lost their livelihoods and sense of purpose. In my own case it was put down to an inability to repay the loan on the cathedral's restoration only one year after completion. It was also felt that after a review (for which there was no evidence shared) the tasks could be covered by volunteers. I think you would need to ask the volunteers and parishioners about that!

The Tablet printed a brilliant letter from my friend John Bell of the Iona Community. It merits re-reading in the current wave of redundancies.

A good point is made about the apparent wilful neglect of the Bishops' own teaching document on Collaborative Ministry. What sign do they think they are giving now?

Fortunately I have since gained worthwhile employment in Tampa, Florida doing much the same thing and finding it hugely valued. And the sun shines!

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 03/07/2015 21:14:02

'What is going on in Brentwood Diocese?'

It could well be that the diocese is trying to follow Pope Francis' injunction to 'smell the sheep' and for the Church not to be 'just another NGO'. Surely living and proclaiming the Gospel is a shared mission for all the laity - not a 'job' to be delegated to a salaried bureaucracy.

Comment by: J.T.
Posted: 03/07/2015 17:53:30

"Costs exceeded income..."

The irresponsible thing to do would have been continuing to employ bureaucracy that the Diocese couldn't afford.

Comment by: On the other hand...
Posted: 03/07/2015 17:11:38

Mark makes interesting points but fails to see the central issue. If you have no money you cannot pay people; and the person who carries the can is the bishop he cannot make it any better by sharing the burden of unpopular decisions with others who at the end of the day are not legally responsible. It may take a long time to put right, but Bishop Alan needs to stand firm in focussing on what he can afford to pay for. Unless of course everyone would like to double their contributions overnight...

Comment by: Paul
Posted: 03/07/2015 13:45:19

There is too much paid bureaucracy in the country's dioceses, so it's encouraging to read that at least one bishop is curtailing it, sad though it is for the individuals affected.

  Loading ...
Get Instant Access
Subscribe to The Tablet for just £7.99

Subscribe today to take advantage of our introductory offers and enjoy 30 days' access for just £7.99