Cameron and Gove at odds over role of religion in 'free' schools

By Jonathan Bartley
February 28, 2010

Michael Gove needs to clarify his party’s policy after he appeared to contradict David Cameron today over whether faith can be a basis for the new ‘free schools’ which the Conservatives are proposing.

The Tories plan to allow parent groups, charities and trusts to set up and run their own schools, if they win the election. The so-called ‘Swedish model’, adopted by the Tories as their key education policy, has been championed by the shadow Schools Secretary as a way of driving up standards by giving parents more choice.

Under the scheme, any approved group would be able to run an independent, non-fee-paying school funded by the state, and out of local authority control.

In his speech today to the Conservative Spring Conference, David Cameron said that religious groups would be able to run them.

However, when asked about it on the BBC’s Politics Show just two hours before by Jon Sopel, in a rather muddled response (where he seems to get churches and schools confused) Michael Gove seemed to say that religious schools would not be able to run them. This was the exchange:

JS: “Can these (‘free’) schools be selective on ability?”

MG: “No”

JS: “On religion?”

MG: “No”

JS: “So you couldn’t set up a Church of England free school?”

MG: “Well, it is the case that the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church or for that matter churches which are set up by the united synagogues or churches which are set up by Islamic, or Hindu or Sikhs groups, can be set up under existing rules within the state system. But the sort of thing that we are talking about is setting up schools which are non-selective, which are comprehensive -“

JS: “So when you say they are ‘free schools’ they are not that free? You are setting down their criteria that they can’t select, you are setting down that they can’t be on religion. It just seems a bit of a misnomer as a title?”

MG: “Well there are many, many, freedoms that they will have. They will have the freedoms that the very best comprehensives, or already academies, have in this country. And those are the freedoms over the curriculum, those are the freedoms to pay good teachers more, those are freedoms over discipline policy, those are freedoms over how they teach and what they teach and those are freedoms which have helped to drive up standards not just in a small numbers of schools in this country but in a large number of schools in other countries.”

The confusion seems to be not so much whether religious groups would be able to set up the new schools, but over whether they would be able to discriminate in employment and admissions to favour their own faith. Gove seems to be saying that they won't. But this will present a problem for many churches, who insist that such discrimination in employment and admissions is necessary to maintain the 'religious ethos' - which David Cameron was championing in his speech today.

Whichever way you look at it therefore, it seems that they have a problem. Whilst the Tories are promising religious groups that they will be able to set up under the 'free' schools system, this is not the kind of schools that many faith groups are envisaging.

But there is another question that they also need to answer. If 'free' schools would not be permitted to discriminate in employment and admissions, why would existing schools continue to be allowed to do so? Presumably, if 'free' schools can have a religious character, then discrimination in any school is unnecessary.

[Update 17.45: I see that Ed Balls has now written to Michael Gove asking him to clarify his position over ('free') faith school schools. There is also now a full transcript on the interviews both with Michael Gove and Ed Balls here: ]

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