LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A decision to lift the faith-based admissions cap on new free schools in England has been welcomed by the Diocese of East Anglia.

The diocese says the decision paves the way for Catholic free schools to open, having previously been excluded under the 50 percent cap or “rule” which could have forced schools to turn away some Catholic students.

Unlike in the United States, religious schools in Great Britain receive public funding, but previous rules were made requiring them to limit the number of students belonging to the faith of the school’s religious sponsors.

A government consultation of the new plan is being held until June 20, and the Diocese of East Anglia is urging people to take part.

The May 1 decision by the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, made in a statement noting the Church of England, Catholic Church and other faith school providers “have a track record in delivering high quality education and run some of the highest performing schools across the country.”

Keegan said as someone who attended a faith school as a child and having worked closely with our leading faith groups as Education Secretary, she has seen first-hand how their values and standards so often give young people a brilliant start in life.

“Faith groups run some of the best schools in the country, including in some of the most disadvantaged areas, and it’s absolutely right we support them to unleash that potential even further – including through the creation of the first ever faith academies for children with special educational needs,” she said.

“Our plan to give every child a world-class education is working, with 90 percent of schools now good or outstanding up from just 68 percent 2010, but we will keep raising that bar until every school is as good as the best,” she continued.

Helen Bates, Assistant Director of Schools for the Diocese of East Anglia, said she welcomed the consultation on the change.

“The Diocese covers some of the fastest growing areas in England, particularly in Cambridgeshire and around Peterborough. In 2019, the Diocese made the only successful submission to the Government’s new voluntary-aided school program which it ran only once. This resulted in the opening of St John Henry Newman Catholic Primary School in Peterborough in 2022,” she said.

“Since 2019, whilst there has been a national reduction in the overall number of primary-aged pupils, some areas within the Diocese are still seeing a pressure on places particularly in the older primary age groups, and most of our secondary schools are over-subscribed. Significant house building in some parts of the Diocese has increased demand for school places but the Diocese has not been able to open new Catholic schools to serve these housing developments because of the 50 percent cap,” Bates said.

“Catholic schools promote the formation of the whole child and are well placed to meets the diverse needs of all children, including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The 2024 CES Census shows that the level of SEND in Diocese of East Anglia schools is above the national average for England and all of our local authorities have all published plans to expand their SEND provision as demand increases year-on-year,” she continued.

“However, current policy means it is not possible for an existing or new special school to have a faith designation. Not only does this mean that the Diocese cannot open Catholic special schools, but it also means that existing special schools in our area cannot benefit from the support of our two Diocesan Trusts, and our Trusts cannot utilize the significant SEND expertise within these special schools,” Bates said.

She said the government proposals will only be accepted by the administration if they see a high level of support through the consultation process.

Catholic Union Vice President and former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said he was “delighted” that the Education Secretary has decided to lift the cap.

“The Catholic Church is one the oldest providers of education in this country, and Catholic schools consistently produce higher than average results. The fact that Catholic free schools were prevented from opening never made sense,” she said.

“Lifting the cap will finally allow Catholics to join other faith groups in being able to open free schools. This decision is well-earned recognition of the success of our schools and a vote of confidence in Catholic education in general,” Kelly added.

The Catholic Union President, Sir Edward Leigh, said the government decision was a great victory for Catholic education “and common sense.”

“For years we have been trying to make ministers see sense on this and allow Catholic free schools to open,” he said.

“It is a relatively minor change, but it will make a big difference to the Catholic community in this country,” Leigh said.

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