Education & Family

Free school applicants' religious affiliation revealed

Michael Gove
Image caption Mr Gove's department had sought to withhold the material following a Freedom of Information request

A quarter of applications to set up free schools in England over the past two years were from faith-based organisations, official data shows.

This compares to a third of state schools which have a faith designation.

Church of England, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish groups were among 132 faith applicants under the scheme.

The data was published after the Department for Education lost a bid to withhold it and was ordered by the Information Commissioner to release it.

As he released the data, Education Secretary Michael Gove said he wanted to be "careful" about the information published on free schools applications.

Faith details

The material now published by the Department for Education (DfE) gives details of free school proposals submitted under the first three "waves" - or rounds - of applications.

For each application it gives the name of the proposed free school, the area it would be situated and the name of the independent school involved, if it is converting to free school status.

For proposals submitted under the second and third "wave" of applications, it also gives the religious faith of the planned school, if there is one.

Analysis of these applications suggests that about 25.5% - 132 applications in total - in these two "waves" were for schools that would have a religious character.

The information also shows that there were 179 applications from independent schools planning to switch over to the state sector and become free schools.

This includes one proposal from a group of schools.

A spokeswoman for the DfE said: "A third of state schools have a faith designation compared to around a fifth of open free schools.

"In addition, the proportion of applications to open a faith-designated free school has also gone down. It is ridiculous to suggest that the free schools programme is an easier way for faith schools to be established over another type of school.

"Free schools are, however, being set up by groups who want something different from the norm. They want freedom from local bureaucrats, the freedom to innovate and the freedom to raise standards of education that reflect the needs of local parents."

Freedom of Information

The details of free school applicants was originally requested under the Freedom of Information Act by the Guardian newspaper, the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the British Humanist Association (BHA).

But the DfE rejected the requests, arguing that revealing the identity of unsuccessful applicants could put them off from reapplying or could deter interest from other groups.

However, the Information Tribunal overruled the department, saying "the balance of public interest favoured disclosure".

"The free school programme involves substantial public funds and significant changes to the way the education service is controlled, managed and delivered," the tribunal concluded.

In a letter to the Information Commissioner, Mr Gove suggested that there had been "personal attacks" on individuals involved in submitting applications under the controversial scheme.

Mr Gove said he had resisted publishing the information because the DfE "wanted to protect public-spirited volunteers from intimidation".

He added they wanted to make sure that groups could open free schools "without fear of reprisal or backlash".

Public interest

In a robust reply, the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, said: "While I note your strongly held views, strongly expressed, I will only observe that both the commissioner and the tribunal have taken careful account of all relevant factors in arriving at a balanced judgment as to where the public interest lies.

"Your department's arguments clearly failed to convince. I note that you chose not to exercise your right of further appeal to the upper tribunal.

"I do not for a moment accept that the publication of the material that you are obliged by law to make public today in any way 'facilitates the targeted intimidation of brave people acting on noble motives'.

"I will join you in defending the right of anyone to oppose (or support) government policy. But I will also defend the operation of the Freedom of Information Act in the public interest."

Richy Thompson, faith schools campaigner at the BHA, said he was "very pleased" that the government had released the material.

He added: "We believe the true number of religious schools is likely to be a third to 50% higher than what the data implies.

"This is because it only shows schools with a formally designated religious character, and not those with a "faith" ethos. Academies and free schools can be religious without formally designating as 'faith' schools."

Natalie Evans, director of the New Schools Network, which advises groups wishing to set up free schools, said: "The tribunal's decision is very disappointing.

"If just one group is deterred from setting up a great new school because of this, it is one too many."

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