When Penny Roberts began looking at primary schools for her eldest daughter Bethany she realised that almost all the other mothers she had met through maternity classes and playgroups had moved out of London. "None of them ever intended to leave but suddenly their children got to the age of two or three and they panicked," she recalls. "People are terrified because there's such a lack of choice. So they move out of the city."
The Roberts family live in Camden, north London – the kind of inner-city borough that sums up the current crisis surrounding primary-school places. Last year more than 130 parents were told that their children had missed out on getting a place for their children on their vital first step up the educational ladder. Council officials were even forced to open up an emergency reception class in a local church.
This year the borough has received 1,678 applications for 1,598 places. Over the next decade Camden will need between 60 and 120 new primary school places each year if it is to meet projected population growth for the area. The Government hopes that one of the answers to such shortages of school places will lie in their flagship "free" school policy. Charities, businesses, parent and teacher groups have all expressed interest in setting up this new genre of state school, which will be outside local authority control and will have much greater leeway in what, and how, they teach.
Roberts – who worked as an educational psychologist before becoming a mother to Bethany, 9, and six-year-old Ellie – is in charge of a group of parents and teachers who have submitted an application to the Department of Education to set up a primary school in the basement of St Luke's church, a gently evangelical church in Hampstead with a broadly young, middle-class congregation. On Monday, St Luke's was told it would become one of the first "free" schools to be established under the Education Secretary Michael Gove's programme. It was one of 16 to be given the go-ahead to set up from next September.
"We're absolutely delighted; it has been a real community effort," Roberts says. "People are elated, but we realise this is just the start not the end. There's a lot of hard work ahead of us but hopefully our community will finally get the school it desperately needs."
The campaigners are anxious to stress that the school will be open to all-comers. "We see this as a natural extension of our community involvement," says Dan Wells, a former teacher who is now the assistant minister at St Luke's. "The Church of England has a great heritage of being involved in education and we see this as a way to continue to give to our community and be involved in the local area."
Critics of the free-school programme say it will reinforce a two-tier education system, with pushy middle-class parents far more likely to set up schools than those living in areas of social deprivation where better schools are desperately needed. Detractors also say religious groups and private schools will be the first to jump on the free-school model because they already have the know-how, experience and resources. They believe their fears were reinforced with the announcement of the first 16 schools, five of which were faith schools (two Jewish, one Hindu and one Sikh in addition to St Luke's).
Aware that his flagship education policy could be derided as something that will only benefit the middle classes and the religious, Mr Gove is said to have told civil servants to hold back all but the most exceptional applications from faith groups that applied to be part of the September 2011 tranche.
Under current policy guidelines, which could of course change over the coming months, any faith group that wants to set up a free school will also have to reserve 50 per cent of its places to students of different faiths or no faith at all.
During the election campaign, the Conservatives said they hoped 3,000 free schools would be opened over the next 10 years, creating 220,000 new places with plans for 20,985 places in the first year of government alone. But budget restrictions now make those figures look hugely optimistic even though Mr Gove stressed the 16 were just the start of a programme which would be rolled out over the coming months. He told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that there had been 700 enquiries about opening free schools, 100 of which had led to applications being made to the Department of Education. Education officials are expecting a further 50 free schools to open in 2012, and 100 the following year.
This week's announcement had the secularists up in arms. Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, believes free schools will allow religious communities to set "unregulated faith schools" and says the Government must resist the temptation to reduce the 50 per cent quota. "[Free schools] will give [religious groups] complete power over the curriculum while unburdening them from the need to raise their own funds," he says. "Very few parents have the time, resources or local influence to set up a new school, but religious groups often have all of these." He adds: "While the 50 per cent rule for free schools doesn't go nearly far enough, it is at least an indication that Mr Gove believes religious discrimination should be curbed. By contrast, the recent lobbying campaign by religious groups demonstrates that many support segregation over inclusion. Mr Gove should cease trying to appease the religious lobby and instead use his powers to introduce open admissions policies for all schools."
In the case of St Luke's, Mrs Roberts says they will aim to have more than 50 per cent of their pupils from other faiths or no faith at all. "We want the school to be one that serves its community," she explains. "We will make it clear in our admissions policy that the children who come to the school will be local children. We certainly won't be encouraging a row of 4x4s from across the borough. This area is a lot more mixed than you might think."
Leah Pettingell hopes to send her daughter to St Luke's if it is given the go-ahead. The Australian-born former primary teacher already takes her one-year-old, Jemimah, to the church playgroup and says mothers of all different faiths are excited by the idea of having a desperately needed new school.
"The playgroup is just a regular playgroup," she says. "Christians run it but they're not on a mission, they're simply there to help out. I went to an evangelical Christian school. There were positive and negatives. We want to bring up Jemimah so that she knows what Christianity is about, but we see that as our responsibility."
There is, however, disquiet within the Jewish community over the current guidelines. The Jewish Board of Deputies has written to its members to ask them to lobby the Government and change the 50 per cent quota. Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies, says: "Unfortunately it looks like free schools are not going to be the panacea Jewish parents thought they would be. This has been a bombshell for parents who had hoped to be able to set up new schools for Jewish children quickly."
But Adam Dawson, a 34-year-old barrister who runs the Mill Hill Jewish Primary School group – another given the go-ahead this week – said he would still press ahead with plans for a free school even if the 50 per cent quota isn't lifted.
"The concept of free schools is very attractive, but the 50 per cent quota could create difficulties," he says. "Our view is that it's not an absolute no, but we would need to find out more about how it will all work."
Different class: Other free schools
Five faith schools, two run by a charity set up by hedge-fund millionaires and one promoting teaching methods that would have had Charles Dickens's Mr Gradgrind turning in his grave. This is the new vision of schooling to be gleaned from the make-up of the first 16 independent "free" schools given the go-ahead by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Apart from St Luke's, the Church of England school in Camden, north London, the other 15 are:
Bedford and Kempston Free School
A proposal for an 11-to-16 secondary set up by teachers. They say they will concentrate on the "Stem" subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and set as their target every child achieving at least a C in maths and English.
The Childcare Company, Slough
A proposal to establish a primary school and attached nursery with a Christian ethos. Its director Sally Eaton is a former school inspector.
Discovery New School, West Sussex
This will be the first state-funded primary school to adopt the Montessori teaching methods, which teach the whole child and put less of an emphasis on preparing pupils for tests and exams.
The Free School, Norwich
A plan by teachers to establish an all-year-round extended school offering childcare facilities after school.
Haringey Jewish Primary School
A school for five- to 11-year-olds in Muswell Hill. It has a large Jewish community. It says it will be open to all Jewish denominations and non-Jews.
I–Foundation Primary School, Leicester
This will be the second Hindu primary school in the country to be funded by the state. (The first is in Hendon.) The school will have "a Hindu ethos and cater for pupils from all communities".
King's Science Academy, Bradford
This is being set up by the son of a local bus driver, Sajid Hussain. The scheme aims to lure the brightest graduates into teaching.
Mill Hill Jewish Primary School, north London
The second Jewish school for five- to 11-year-olds. The school will have a Jewish ethos. The group proposing it are still considering their admissions arrangements. Mr Gove wants all "free" faith schools to offer 50 per cent of places to non-faith applicants.
Nishkam Education Trust, Birmingham
This will be the first all-through Sikh state school to be established in the UK (pictured below).
North Westminster Free School (ARK), London
This is the first of two to be run by the Ark education charity, set up by the hedge-fund millionaire Arpad "Arki" Busson. It will be for three- to 11-year-olds.
Priors Marston and Priors Hardwick school, Warwickshire
Again a school with a Christian ethos, this primary already exists and is run through private donations after the local authority insisted it should close.
Rivendale First School, Hammersmith and Fulham
A primary school which states that it will have no religious ethos and offer an alternative to existing faith schools in the area.
Stour Valley Community School, Suffolk
An 11-to-16 school being set up by parents opposed to the closure of a local middle school.
West London Free School, Acton
Being set up by a group of parents headed by the writer and broadcaster Toby Young, it is a secondary school with an emphasis on the classics.
Wormholt North Hammersmith Free School (to be known as Burlington Primary Academy)
The second primary school being planned by the Ark academy.