The Veteran Conservative backbencher, Catholic MP Sir Edward Leigh, has angrily denounced the government’s U-turn over its election manifesto pledge to lift the schools admissions cap. In a statement to The Tablet, he described the turnaround as “a disgrace”.
The government announced last week that the cap, which prevents new free faith schools from selecting more than half of their pupils on the basis of religion, would stay. In a compromise measure, it said there would be an increase in voluntary-aided faith schools, which are allowed to select all pupils on a faith basis, where there is a demand.
In his statement, Sir Edward said: “We are being told we cannot have free schools because they will not be diverse – even though our schools are more diverse and higher performing than almost any others. The government’s own statistics show this policy has been totally ineffective. As the cap uniquely and disproportionately discriminates against Catholics, I think the chance of a legal challenge is now high.”
When Catholic-educated Damian Hinds became education secretary in January, hopes were raised that he would heed the pleas of the bishops of England and Wales, who had mounted a robust campaign to try to force the government to stick to its promise. Instead, announcing the decision, Mr Hinds said: “We’ve reflected long and hard on these difficult issues … we have concluded that it’s right that we continue to have that cap.”
Harsh new rules in the classroom
The Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies, branded the government’s failure to lift the cap as “a blow to the rights of Christian parents” and “an ominous sign that the freedom of Christian parents to educate their children was being made subservient to ideology”.
He said that the policy represented both a defeat for the aspirations of parents who sought a Catholic education for their children and a betrayal of assurances given to Catholic parents by the Conservative Party ahead of the 2017 general Election.
East Anglia has some of the most severe shortages of places in Catholic schools in the country and the diocese has worked on developing bids for eight new Catholic schools. Bishop Alan Hopes said he was extremely disappointed by the move.
“The cap has never achieved what it set out to do, namely to increase diversity in faith schools,” he said. “Instead it has served as a very effective barrier to building new Catholic schools, which are some of the most successful and popular schools in the country. They are also more ethnically and socially diverse than non-Catholic schools.”
The bishops’ conference chair on education, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, accused the government of ignoring the tens of thousands of Catholics who had campaigned on the issue. “Catholic schools are popular with parents of all faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds, despite this we will remain barred from participating in the free school programme. The Catholic Church has had a long and positive relationship with the state in the provision of education and we see [the] decision as a regressive step in this historic partnership.”
In March, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said that the assertion that the Church is trying to run schools that are monocultural or monofaith is totally untrue. One Catholic school headteacher, Simon Uttley, told The Tablet: “While the decision does amount to a breach of good faith, flying in the face of the fact that our Catholic schools are the most socio-economically inclusive and cohesive in the system, nevertheless I welcome the retention of voluntary-aided status within the ecology of schools.”
Humanist David Pollock, in a letter to The Guardian, described the cap’s retention as “an unlikely victory for cohesion and inclusiveness … [which] may bring politicians at last to realise the Churches’ historic control of one-third of our schools is not unchallengeable after all”.