The government has ordered Leeds City Council to hand over a former primary school site worth around £1 million, gratis and without compensation, to a Sikh free school, the Khalsa Science Academy.
Like many free schools, the Sikh-ethos religious school found it difficult to find a suitable building, yet this was seen as no obstacle to its opening – in temporary premises. Now the Department for Education has come to the rescue, handing over a former primary school to the Khalsa Education Trust for its free school, the Khalsa Science Academy. Leeds had been considering using the site for a new special needs school.
Perversely, schools minister Lord Nash claimed in a letter to the council that the move would be good for community relations, writing that any “negative effect” on special needs pupils is “outweighed by the benefits of providing greater choice for parents who may be seeking a Sikh ethos education”.
In spite of the impressive name, the free school is not in high demand. At present it has 10 spare places. The Yorkshire Post reports that of the 12 children in the reception class (30 is the usual number) only three had actually chosen to go there. Others were allocated places at the free school as the schools they had chosen were full.
The growth of religious free schools and academies has led to this happening in many areas of the country. Since 2010 councils are not allowed to open new schools despite the huge demand for primary places, so it is no longer unusual for parents whose school choice is turned down to be informed that the only place available for their child is in a religious school like Khalsa.
Religious free schools are often given approval by the Department for Education when there is little evidence of demand. A Jewish free secondary school, also in Leeds, was opened last year using £3.1 million of public money. In spite of its “state of the art” facilities, it opened in March 2014 with just eight pupils, gaining two more by the end of the school year. In September the new year 7 attracted 11 pupils, making 21 pupils in total across two school years.
More information is available on www.secularism.org.uk, the website of the National Secular Society.