On Friday 11 May, the Government published its response to its ‘Schools that work for everyone’ consultation, launched “as part of the Government’s commitment to create more good school places”. Mainstream press attention focussed on the modest funds available for the expansion of grammar schools. However, the major announcement for faith schools was the confirmation that the 50% cap on faith-based admissions for new free schools will be kept, despite earlier indications that it could be lifted.
Faith organisations, and in particular Catholic Dioceses, had hoped that they would be able to establish new free schools without the 50% cap on faith-based admissions when they are oversubscribed. The Government has put an end to such hopes for the present.
The Government recognises that the 50% cap on faith-based admissions “has resulted in some faith groups feeling unable to open new schools given they consider the restrictions on admissions contravene religious rules on the make-up of their schools”. Therefore, the Government proposes to make funds available for the creation of new voluntary aided schools for faith and other providers. The role of local authorities in setting up the new schools is stressed. This represents a surprising departure from the general direction of the academies programme, that is, the movement of state-funded schools away from local authority control, and the policy trend towards new schools being academies rather than maintained schools.
The response also addressed the role of selective schools, universities and independent schools in creating new public sector school spaces.
While the grammar schools made headlines in national newspapers, in reality there is little new policy in the Government’s response on this issue. The legislative bar to the creation of new selective schools will therefore remain in place, and given the current focus on Brexit and the slim parliamentary majority it enjoys, this perhaps is not surprising. The new application round for the Selective School Expansion Fund was launched alongside the response; £50 million will be available in 2018-19.
A recent Memorandum of Understanding between the Government and the Grammar School Heads Association (GSHA) includes GSHA commitments to take ‘further steps’ to prioritise children eligible for the pupil premium in their over-subscription criteria; to publicise their availability to disadvantaged children; to work with primary schools to encourage applications; and to develop links with non-selective schools.
In terms of independent schools and universities, the response emphasises the roles which the Government expects them to play, but does not propose that the Government will actually compel them to fulfil these roles. However, the Independent Schools Council (ISC) has agreed that it will require its members to provide information on their contribution to the wider school system in their annual census returns. Whilst the Government is not requiring concrete outcomes from independent schools, the ISC will apply some pressure on its members to meet the Government expectations. Notably, the Government is not threatening the charitable status of independent schools or linking their ability to retain charitable status to their participation in the academies programme.