Photograph: Guardian/Jeff Morgan/AlamyFulfilling an election promise, the UK’s new Conservative-led government has announced approval for the first 16 free schools to be created by parents, teachers and charities. Almost half of them will have a religious ethos.

Two are Jewish, one is Sikh, one Hindu, one Church of England and two others will have a “Christian ethos”, reports the Guardian.

There have long been Anglican and Catholic (and probably other Christian denominational) schools in Britain, some of them independent but others largely funded by the state, and it is interesting to see that, when given the freedom and public support, parents and communities are opting for schools with a religious character.

Previous recent governments have had similar policies but few new schools have actually resulted from them. Education Secretary Michael Gove wants things to happen more quickly. He has hinted that as many as 700 free schools — an idea taken from Sweden and the US — could be established. But not all will have a religious stamp.

Schools offering training in etiquette and fine dining in Bradford, compulsory Latin in London, and lessons for all children in a musical instrument in Bedford were among those approved last week.

The group behind the King’s Science Academy, a free school due to open in Bradford, is driven by a vision of liberating inner city children from “ghettoisation”. Sajid Hussain, a science teacher and assistant head who hopes to lead the new secondary school, said: “We hope to teach good manners. We’re looking at a sense of responsibility, social conduct, sitting down and dining. Independent schools are quite good at this kind of stuff.”

Hussain said: “I come from a working class background, my father was a bus driver and we really struggled in getting a good education. I’ve been working in inner city schools for the last 13-14 years, and children are still facing very similar challenges. Parents are looking for a particular dimension in schooling for their children, to ensure their children are safe from social vices. At the same time they want excellent results.

“Both of these areas are not being fulfilled by education in Bradford at the moment.”

The new school will raise literacy standards by “collapsing the humanities subjects into English”, Hussain said. “Instead of having three to four hours of English we will have eight to 10 hours. All subjects such as RE [Religious Education] or history will have a literacy focus.”

The new schools could pose a challenge to the teaching unions because they emphasise raising standards through longer hours and more flexible teaching. Both methods could prove contentious.

Uniting the schools is an emphasis on improving academic results through longer hours, mandatory homework clubs, and stripping down subjects such as history if it is needed to focus on literacy.

Many of the groups want to focus pupils’ minds on how their schoolwork translates into getting into the best universities and getting good jobs.

This will be an interesting development to watch, and possibly emulate in other countries.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet