Council relaunches faith school consultation after claims it is ‘the only option’ to meet need for places

A public consultation on whether a new Church of England school should open in Kingston upon Thames has been relaunched after Humanists UK objected to irregularities in how local people were consulted about the proposal the first time around. It seems likely that whatever the outcome of the second four-week consultation, the school will be approved, with one councillor saying it is ‘the only option’ to meet the London Borough’s urgent need for secondary school places. However, Humanists UK is urging local residents to participate in the consultation to robustly challenge the proposal, which will see at least a third of those places allocated to children from Christian backgrounds.

The first consultation took place in February. However, rather than going to the Council, responses were solicited by and sent directly to the Diocese responsible for the bid, Southwark Diocesan Board of Education (SDBE). SDBE then analysed the results themselves in a report they prepared for the Council to make a decision. Humanists UK – which has long campaigned for a fully inclusive school system that is open to pupils from all backgrounds – wrote to the Council to point out that this procedure was contrary to Government guidance and effectively meant the Diocese was being allowed to mark its own homework. As a result, the decision was postponed and a new consultation, the results of which go directly to the Council, has now been launched.

If given the green light, Kingston Church of England Secondary School will be the second faith school to open via the Government’s new funding scheme for voluntary aided (VA) schools. Despite strong local opposition, the first – a Catholic primary school – is set to open in Peterborough next year. Before the scheme was launched (and for the past decade), all new schools were expected to be free schools. When they have a religious character, free schools may only select up to 50% of their pupils by religion whereas VA schools are legally permitted to select up to 100% of pupils by faith.

The Church of England has long maintained that it makes little use of religious selection and that its schools are for the whole community. However, the Kingston school proposal says that a third of places will be reserved for ‘children of families who can demonstrate Anglican or other Christian commitment’. In correspondence seen by Humanists UK, SDBE said it was using the VA scheme because DfE criteria for free schools funding – which has recently targeted only areas of low social mobility and educational attainment – means CofE schools are unlikely to be approved in London. But, it doesn’t explain why so many of the places at the Kingston school will prioritise children from Christian backgrounds.

The restrictions on the areas able to receive additional Government funding for free school places also explain why the Kingston bid is practically certain to be approved, with local Councillor Olly Wehring saying, ‘This isn’t the best option, the worst option, the best-worst option or the worst-best option. It’s the only option, to get a secondary school in an area of need, in a time of need.’ His view was echoed in the original report supplied to Councillors tasked with making a decision about the proposal, which put the cost of opening a new free school at £25 million compared to £2.5 million for the VA school, even with the Council footing the 10% capital costs that were originally supposed to be covered by the Diocese and meaning they will pay nothing.

Since, in practice, religious organisations are the only bidders likely to use the VA route, this means that the number of faith schools opening in areas like Kingston is likely to increase regardless of whether such schools are wanted by local residents.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented: 

‘We are pleased that Kingston Council has relaunched the consultation on this controversial proposal. Local residents have a right to have their say on what schools open in their local area via fair and transparent process, and we strongly encourage them to respond, not least to oppose the plan to reserve up to a third of places at this school for children from a particular faith background.

‘However, the sad fact is that, whatever the outcome of this consultation, the Council will probably be forced to press ahead with this divisive plan for a faith school or risk being left without enough places for children in the Borough. It is utterly wrong that faith schools are increasingly likely to be imposed on local areas where the vast majority would prefer inclusive, community ethos schools merely because of an anomaly in the funding system, particularly as the religious groups benefiting from them rarely pick up the tab. We urge the Government to review this situation to make sure that all new state-funded school places are open and suitable for everyone regardless of background.’