The Church of England has announced plans to open more than 100 new schools over the next five years in an effort to “enhance” provision and “influence” debate.

The Church is planning to bid for control of over 25% of the new free schools that were recently announced by the government.

The Church is currently responsible for the education of one million students throughout 4,700 schools, with plans to open 125 additional schools in the next several years in order to maintain their ratio of running one in four schools in the country in addition to adding to the number of secondary schools it runs.  In all, 4,417 schools run by the Church are elementary schools and just 209 are secondary schools, writes Harriet Sherwood for The Guardian.

Last year the Archbishop of York, Dr, John Sentamu, referred to free schools as “confused policy,” saying that they benefit the wealthy while taking money away from efforts to raise standards in the state sector.  However, the Church has now changed its mind as a result of a new requirement which asks applicants to show a need in a certain area for a new school rather than pushing for active competition, writes John Bingham for The Telegraph.

Ten Church of England free schools have opened since 2010, with eight more having been approved since then.  While 11 applications have been filed, the Church is applying for an additional 15 in the next round to occur this fall.

Stephen Conway, the lead Bishop for education, made the announcement.  He said that once implemented, the Church would be able to “shape and enhance our provision and to influence the debate about what education is for.”

He added that it would help the Church to “open new schools and develop existing schools; and to provide radically new approaches to how we function as a movement for education and train teachers and leaders to share that vision.”

However, Stephen Evans, the campaigns director of the National Secular Society, said the plan was “alarming,” adding that the role played by the Church in state education should be reduced, not expanding.  He said that as church attendance continues to fall, the Church is using these schools as a way to spread their message to children and their families.  He argued that the Church was only interested in running these schools as a method of “self-preservation.”

“Handing over vast swathes of publicly funded education to religious organisations may serve the Church, but it’s hard to see how it serves families who aren’t interested in religion yet are finding it increasingly difficult to secure a secular education for their children.”

While free schools are set up by the government, they can be set up and run by parents, teachers, charities, businesses, universities, trusts, religious or voluntary groups.  However, they are not allowed to make a profit.

The curriculum used in these schools can be decided upon by those in charge, although it remains subject to inspection by Ofsted, the schools’ watchdog.  In addition, it must publish Sats, GCSE and A-level results.

Free schools are also not allowed to be academically selective.  If faith-based schools are oversubscribed, they are allowed to organize 50% of schools by faith, although the other 50% must be open to all applicants.

Although the Church of England maintains students are not selected for their schools based on faith, church attendance is often a requirement for admission at oversubscribed schools.

In all, 500 new free schools are expected to open by 2020 according to plans announced by David Cameron.  The average cost of submitting each bid for a free school is almost £30,000.  In all, the Church of England would need to submit £3.75 million to reach their target of 125 schools.