Catholic school leaders are cautious about a new drive to lift the cap on faith-based admissions, after some took a “huge financial risk” and had their “fingers burned” the last time it was promised, Schools Week has learned.

Damian Hinds, the education secretary, pledged to lift the cap – which prevents free schools in areas with a shortage of places from admitting more than 50 per cent of pupils on the basis of faith – in an interview with The Sunday Times last week.

The Catholic Education Service has welcomed the move, and one diocese is poised to build eight new free schools in the east of England as soon as the cap is lifted.

But a source familiar with the situation said some in the church are privately nervous about the news, and won’t act until matters are set in stone.

The cap, introduced in 2010, has hindered plans to open more Catholic free schools because canon law prevents them from turning away pupils on the basis of their Catholic faith. The Catholic Education Service estimates there is demand for about 20,000 places, which equates to around 35 to 40 schools.

Plans to lift the cap were announced by Theresa May and Hinds’ predecessor Justine Greening in 2016, as part of the ‘Schools that work for everyone’ consultation, and some dioceses invested time and money into efforts to open new free schools.

Some even took the “huge financial risk” of securing sites, while others spent “tens of thousands of pounds” preparing to open schools, Schools Week understands.

But the proposal was kicked into the long grass following the Conservatives’ poorer-than-expected performance at last year’s general election, leaving the church’s school expansion plans in limbo.

Damian Hinds

East Anglia, one of the dioceses that took the risk the first time, told Schools Week it wants “immediately” to build eight new schools if the cap is lifted. Demand in the region has been driven by immigration from Catholic countries.

It has plans for a secondary school in Cambridge, a sixth-form college in Norwich and six primary schools: two in Cambridge, two in Norwich, one in Peterborough and one in Thetford.

“Over the last decade we have seen a significant rise in the Catholic community in East Anglia, primarily due to waves of immigration,” Helen Bates, assistant director at the Diocese of East Anglia Schools’ Service, told Schools Week.

The Catholic Education Service has welcomed Hinds’ pledge, which it said demonstrated his “commitment to parents and their right to have choice in the school system”.

“As the second largest provider of education in the country, the Catholic church looks forward to strengthening its ongoing partnership with the government, providing high-quality schools where there is parental demand for them,” it continued.

The reverend Stephen Terry, chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, called the cap “the most serious attempt by government in recent years to help boost mixing and integration in society”, and said Hinds would “fail in his duty to wider society” if the cap were lifted.

“Though a small measure, the cap sends an important signal that schools should not seek to entrench religious division, but break down barriers and segregation.

“Scrapping the cap would go against both public opinion and what academic evidence and history warn about creating religious silos in the school system.”

Humanists UK also criticised the move, and wrote to Robert Halfon, chair of the parliamentary education committee, demanding an inquiry.

A spokesperson for the DfE said: “The government is committed to offering parents and children a diverse education system with wide variety of  high quality providers – and this includes faith schools.

“We will be responding to the Schools that Work for Everyone consultation, including plans for the faith cap, in due course.”