As expected, the government’s Green Paper today outlines how oversubscribed faith schools will no longer have to offer 50 per cent of their places to those of other religions or none.
But the consultation document also a lists a number of new criteria that faith free schools will have to meet to ensure diversity.
These include the requirement to "prove that there is demand for school places from parents of other faiths…Faith schools should be required to prove, through local consultation and signatures, that parents of other faiths would be happy to send their children there."
Previously, new faith schools were required merely to demonstrate that they had reached out to people of other faiths and none and encouraged applications from them. They were expected to show that their school was attractive to such parents, but there was no stipulation on how they should do it.
Under the Green Paper proposals, new faith free schools would also be expected to establish a twinning arrangement with other schools, either of different religions or of none.
The paper recommends that those setting up new faith schools consider forming a mixed-faith multi-academy trust, and possibly sponsor underperforming non-faith schools.
And they should consider including an independent member or director of a different religion, or none, on their governing body.
The proposal to change the requirements for new faith free schools follows pressure from the Catholic church, which said that the obligation to offer 50 per cent of places to non-Catholics – potentially turning away Catholics from its schools – was against canonical law.
Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service, welcomed the new proposals. "We had hoped that people were listening to the arguments we put forward," he said. "But the announcement itself has come as a surprise. We’re very pleased."
The Green Paper acknowledges that "the effectiveness that capping faith admissions…has had in promoting inclusion and community cohesion is…questionable".
In practice, free schools serving minority faiths in England, such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism, the intake has been predominantly of pupils from these religious backgrounds.
The Green Paper states: "This means we need to consider other ways in which we can ensure that these schools promote inclusivity and community cohesion."
Jay Harman, of the British Humanist Association, warned that demand for faith schools could be misleading. "Parents want good schools, rather than faith schools," he said. "If local parents think that the best way of getting a good local school is by getting a faith school, that misrepresents the extent to which they are happy to have a faith school in the area."
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