An elite private Catholic school attended by the poet Roger McGough has ditched a bid to become a free school after church leaders said that it could lead to it having to turn away Catholic pupils.
Leaders at St Mary’s College in Crosby, Merseyside, which belongs to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference of top private schools, had hoped the move would enable it to provide education to children from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
But the Archdiocese of Liverpool has blocked the move at the £10,000-a-year school, arguing that the change would be against church policy and potentially reduce the Catholic character of the school.
Currently, a free school can only reserve 50 per cent of its places for a particular faith, with the other half made available to pupils of all faiths or none if it is over-subscribed.
Earlier this month, Conservative Catholic MP Damian Hinds called on the government to reconsider the 50 per cent limit, which was introduced in the 2010 Academies Act, and consider piloting a Catholic free school without it.
In a recent letter to parents at St Mary's College, Tim Warren, the director of schools and colleges for the Archdiocese of Liverpool, said he had been “dismayed’ that the school had been "misleading large numbers of parents of Catholic children" by suggesting that the school might become a free school.
“The truth of the matter is that this won’t and indeed cannot happen under current government policy,” he wrote.
"Parents need to know the truth about the application, which has been submitted to the DfE without the approval of either the trustees of the school or the Catholic Archdiocese of Liverpool” he wrote.
In the letter to parents, he also quotes a letter he had written to the school in November, calling upon the governing body to end “this futile consideration” which could “do nothing but cause confusion and engender false expectations for Catholic parents of Sefton and Merseyside.”
A recent statement from the Archdiocese confirmed that members of the Catholic Bishops' Conference agreed that the imposition of a 50 per cent cap on admissions was “not a secure basis for the provision of a Catholic school” and urged dioceses around the country “to resist any pressure to establish a school on that basis”.
The school’s principal, Mike Kennedy, who has in the past said that it was important for the school to be "inclusive”, said that he was "disappointed" the Church had not been able to support its application.
“Obviously we are disappointed that we have been forced to withdraw our free-school application, because we felt it represented an exciting opportunity for us to widen access to the excellent education we offer," he said in a statement on the school website.
"In the case of St Mary’s at least, our pupil profile as a free school would have been very little different from what it is now – around two-thirds Catholic students and one third those of other faiths or no faith, all of whom would have made an equally valuable contribution to our school.
"Having said all this, the Christian Brothers ultimately felt that they could not support an application that could place the school in direct conflict with the authority of the Archdiocese and the policy of the Bishops’ Conference, and with the faith designation unresolved we had no hope of receiving DfE approval."
The plans to open as a free school in September 2015 had been strongly supported by parents, he said.
He added: "St Mary's College will continue as an independent Catholic school... we will also carry on exploring ways to raise further funds to enable us to welcome more pupils from families who may be unable to afford school fees."