Congratulations to the civil servant that worked out it was possible to circumvent the cap on faith-based admissions placed upon new free schools by reviving the concept of voluntary schools, where there has never been any such cap on admissions. The proposals are contained in the government’s response to the 2016 Schools that Work for Everyone Consultation. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/706243/Schools_that_work_for_everyone-Government_consultation_response.pdf
The determining paragraph is on page 14:
To enable the creation of these places, we will be establishing a capital scheme to support the creation of new voluntary aided schools for faith and other providers. Schools created through this scheme will have the same freedoms as existing voluntary aided schools, including over their admissions which will enable them to select up to 100% of pupils on the basis of faith. There has never been a general route for any faith group to receive 100% state funding for a school with 100% faith-based admissions. In line with this, and our longstanding approach to funding of voluntary aided schools, the Department for Education expects those groups establishing voluntary aided schools to contribute 10% of the capital costs relating to their schools. Local authorities will play a key role in supporting and approving any new voluntary aided school, to ensure it fits well with our integration and community cohesion objectives. They will be well placed to consider how new proposals will meet demand from, and potential impact on, the local community. The Department for Education will develop the details of this scheme over the coming months and will set out the arrangements by which proposer groups can apply for capital funding later this year.
It is interesting that new voluntary aided schools don’t seem to be restricted to faith providers. However, anyone contemplating such schools is going to have to raise 10% of the capital costs, so best to start with a small school and then expand it later if successful. These schools will, presumably, have to be built under the ‘presumption’ route, as otherwise they would need to be free schools and hence capped as to faith limits.
This may well provoke some interesting discussions where a small local authority such as a London borough or a unitary council needs a single new primary school. How is the evidence of demand going to be assessed? It may well be challenging to believe the data from parish priests and diocese. I well recall the demand for a Catholic secondary school when Oxfordshire replaced its three tier system with primary and secondary schools and the Catholic diocese wanted to break up the existing Ecumenical Upper School and establish a wholly Catholic secondary school. They sent a procession of parish priests along to explain the demand for such a school. They got their way, but the school now has less than 40% of its pupils as Catholics.
There is a strong case for granting voluntary aided status for a set period of time. If the school roll falls below the 50% of pupil numbers of the free school threshold for the faith at the end of a set time period then, unless it can regain that threshold within a set period, the school should revert to being a community school.
The challenge, of course remains that discussed by the Wesleyan Methodists before the 1902 Education Act was passed. Are teachers that are Methodists called to be teachers of children or of Methodists? Faith groups demanding voluntary aided schools need to have an answer to that question.