Michael Gove has entered into a row over admissions at a proposed Roman Catholic school by suggesting that the number of places given to followers of the faith be capped at 50 per cent.
The education secretary's comments were made in a letter to his Cabinet colleague, Vince Cable, in whose Twickenham constituency the planned school would be located.
Mr Gove said he would consider a cap on faith-based admissions at the proposed school in southwest London to be "very sensible". But the Church wants to give 90 per cent of the places to children from Catholic families and ensure that the other 10 per cent prioritises pupils who went to Catholic primaries.
Mr Gove's intervention follows restrictions placed on faith free schools, which can allocate only half their places with reference to religion. "The proposals are for the (Catholic) school to be a voluntary-aided school," Mr Gove wrote to Mr Cable. "As you know, that means that the school will able to admit pupils on grounds of faith, but the 50 per cent non-faith provision for the school's admissions will not apply. The suggestion that the school takes on a similar provision voluntarily seems very sensible to me, and I would welcome such a move."
The comments are understood to have caused concern at the Catholic Education Service (CES), which has sought reassurances from government that there will not be a change in policy. Maeve McCormack, policy manager for the CES, said: "The borough of Richmond has a large Catholic population and a shortage of school places generally, so this school will be really important in enabling families to send their children to the kind of school they want."
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition, which wants faith admissions to be banned, said that Mr Gove's support for a cap sent a "powerful message that such religious discrimination is increasingly viewed as an outmoded and unwelcome practice".
A spokesman for the Westminster Catholic diocese said that the proposed admissions arrangements had been supported by 95 per cent of respondents to a consultation earlier this year. But a campaign group - the Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign - has led protests against the plans (pictured, below) and demanded a new community school.