It’s been branded a ‘bold’ decision by many in the education sector however, the Church of England (CofE) is confident in its plans to open 125 free schools by 2020.

The plans cover a quarter of the initial target of 500 laid out by the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, who, in his last engagements as PM, unveiled the approval of 31 free schools.

Free schools are new schools set up by parents, teachers, charities, religious bodies or existing schools, if it can be demonstrated there is a need in the community. Free schools are a type of academy, which are state-funded but not controlled by a Local Authority.

The government believes free schools and academies will improve educational standards. A report titled ‘Church of England Vision for Education’ seconds this by describing the free schools programme as a “unique opportunity” to enhance its contribution to education.

The CofE is already the largest single provider of schools and academies in England, with many of them oversubscribed. It maintains that their schools are open to all including those of different faiths, or no faith. However, church attendance is often a criterion for admission to oversubscribed schools. Whilst they can’t be academically selective, if they are deemed to be oversubscribed they are allowed to allocate up to 50% of pupil places to those of CofE faith.

Free schools – a ‘wait and see’ approach on whether they improve education standards

There are 4,417 CofE primary schools and over 209 CofE secondary schools (the equivalent to a ratio of one in four UK schools) in which there are currently ten free schools educating nearly one million children, with another eight applications recently approved. Free schools are able to set their own curriculum but they remain accountable to Ofsted, the school’s watchdog, and all results (SATs, GCSEs and A-levels) must be published.

Many free schools are new and have, therefore, had limited time to demonstrate evidence of performance.

In 2014 Ofsted decided: “It’s simply too early to judge the overall performance of free schools.” In October 2015 it also amended its policy of visiting new free schools in their second year to allow extra time for “a more extensive evidence-base to be collected by inspectors.”

The decision has been met with opposition

The decision by the CofE has been met with staunch opposition; branding the move as “counterproductive”.

The British Humanist Association has spoken out, describing the plans as “entirely out of step with the beliefs of the population and the wishes of the vast majority of parents.”

They continued: “[Free schools] severely threaten the rights of children to learn with and from those of other religions and beliefs, to be defined by more than simply the religion or beliefs of their parents and to enjoy a balanced education without fear of discrimination or division.

“Creating more faith schools when the number of people they can appropriately cater for continues to decline is counterintuitive and counterproductive.”