Education & Family

Pupils sent to Sikh free school amid place shortage

Children examine insect Image copyright Other
Image caption Khalsa Science Academy pupils specialise in sciences

More than 20 pupils have been allocated places at a Sikh-ethos free school in Leeds that they did not choose, amid a shortage of school places.

Of the 30 pupils allocated a place at Khalsa Science Academy for next year, only eight named it as a choice.

The school is not a faith school, but it is run with a Sikh ethos.

Leeds City Council blamed ministers for prioritising free schools over locally run schools, but the Conservatives said the schools benefited young people.

Martin Wheatley's five-year-old daughter is one of the children allocated a reception place at the school, which opened in September 2013 and is currently based on a temporary site in Chapeltown, three miles from his home.

'Black holes'

He said: "We strongly believe in education being secular and not based on any one faith - and we expressly stated in our original application that we wanted a non-religiously affiliated education for our daughter.

"Our nearest catchment school is a Church of England school, so we opted for the nearest non-religious school which is only an additional 50m further from our home.

"Last week, to our dismay, we discovered we had not only missed out on all our choices, but that the local authority were claiming that the nearest school we could be sent to was the Khalsa Science Academy - over four times the distance away from where we live."

He added: "In the area just around us there seems to be some black holes in provision because of the number of pupils - people are having to trek from one side of the city to the other to go to school."

Mr Wheatley said he planned to appeal against the decision and has joined a group of parents who are due to raise their concerns with Leeds City Council.

'Hard to resolve'

Councillor Judith Blake, executive member responsible for children and families, said: "We do understand the frustration these parents will be feeling and can very much sympathise with their predicament.

"Unfortunately this is the situation that we have been left with since the government ruled that local authorities are not able to open new schools, until academies and free schools have been ruled out.

"This leaves the council in a position where there may be more faith places in an area than parents are happy with, such as the current position in Alwoodley area following the government taking over the old Fir Tree Primary School site for Khalsa.

"There are sufficient places in the area as a whole, but they are not places which many parents feel are suitable for their children."

She added: "This is a wholly unsatisfactory situation which officers, local councillors and schools are working hard to resolve."

On its website, the Khalsa Free School stresses it is not a faith school, adding: "We are firmly committed to developing our pupils' understanding and appreciation of the diverse world in which they live."

It says: "We welcome all children regardless of their backgrounds or faiths and we aim to help all our children develop a lifelong love of learning, which will support them throughout their academic careers and beyond."

But the school is run according to a Sikh ethos, which it describes as "supporting the nurturing of pupils' personally, socially and academically to achieve their potential through promoting high standards of behaviour, underpinned by a strong pastoral system".

The website says: "Education has been the foundation of the Sikh faith, as the literal translation of the word 'Sikh' is a learner for life. The Sikh Gurus expressed that the spiritual and secular life should co-exist.

"For Sikhs, education not only prepares students for work and life in society but also supports spiritual growth. Education is understood by Sikhs to raise aspirations and personal standards, encourage self-awareness and humility, and inspire all to seek a greater purpose in life."

Temporary site

A spokesman for the Khalsa Education Trust said a number of issues had affected the school's ability to recruit pupils, including the fact that it is on a temporary site and that there has been uncertainty about when they will move to the permanent site.

"A lot of people see Sikh and immediately think it is a faith school. Actually it is a Sikh-ethos school and the religious education that they offer is very much like a Church of England school, only this school teaches about more faiths than many Church of England schools."

Image copyright other
Image caption There are 47 pupils at Khalsa Science Academy currently

The spokeswoman added: "We have had eight parents out of these 22, who have been allocated a place at the school without putting it down as a choice, [have] come in and seen the school and they say they are now happy that their children are going to the school."

She also highlighted the lack of school places in the north Leeds area.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "Across the country free schools are transforming the life chances of thousands of young people.

"These new schools give parents the power to demand more for their children and for this reason they are incredibly popular, with the average free school oversubscribed three to one."

Stephen Evans, of the National Secular Society, said: "Rather than wasting public money on unwanted faith-based free schools, the government should be ensuring that where school places are needed, they're created in inclusive and religiously neutral schools."

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