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Harsh new rules in the classroom: the cap on faith-based admissions

Mike Craven - The Tablet - Sat, May 19th 2018

Damian Hinds’ U-turn over the scrapping of the cap leaves the cause of Catholic education at a crossroads.

What on earth went wrong? We had a government firmly committed to removing the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions to new free schools; a Conservative Party whose manifesto included this as a firm policy, citing the discrimination against the Catholic Church as its reason; a newly appointed Catholic secretary of state for education on record supporting the scrapping of the cap; an unusually well-organised campaign, encouraging Catholic lay people to lobby their MPs to back the removal of the cap. And yet it is difficult to disagree with Archbishop Malcolm McMahon’s description of the announcement last week, that the cap would be staying, as a U-turn. In other words, it was a defeat for the Church.

Why did it happen? Ministers faced with newsworthy decisions will look at an issue from a number of angles. First, what do I actually believe? Then, how will No. 10 view this? What are my officials advising? How will the media react, and what will the backbenchers think?

We can assume that, all other things being equal, education secretary Damian Hinds believes that lifting the cap would have been the right thing to do and that had he done it, he would have had the support of No. 10. He must, therefore, have judged that the political capital he would have to have spent on this issue was not worth it in the end. There would have been sufficient heat and noise from elements of the media, the backbenches and the public to have made it not worth the scrap.

So he announced a compromise. The cap would not be lifted for free schools, but it would made be easier to open new voluntary- aided schools via the local authority route and capital funding would be made available. While welcome, this compromise obviously makes no sense.

If 100 per cent faith-based free schools are wrong on social cohesion grounds, 100 per cent faith-based voluntary-aided ones must be as well. But it looked better – Hinds wouldn’t be overturning the existing policy. However, the implications for the Church are serious. It means that a very sympathetic secretary of state, with a very sympathetic prime minister, was unable to do something that the hierarchy considered of benefit to the Catholic school sector.

To understand the reason for the defeat, we have to consider the changed attitudes to faith-based education. Historically, “state” schools in England were never secular, as they are in France or the United States. They were grounded, legally and educationally, in the tenets of the Established Church of England. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church prioritised the building and maintenance of its own alternative education system, and Catholic schools provided a faith-based education for the largely Irish immigrant community. These schools were built and maintained by the Church, including the remuneration of their teachers and staff. Vast sums were raised from ordinary Catholics to support what was one of the largest voluntary programmes of the time.

From as early as 1847, a formal partnership had been formed with the state, which enabled it to keep a close eye on developing Catholic education. Gradually, cooperation between the Church and the state grew, culminating in the 1944 Education Act, which formalised a parallel, very largely state-funded, Catholic education system.

Although controversial with some, this classically British compromise worked well, not only for Catholics but for the Jewish community as well. Anglicans had their own schools, though these served a different purpose to Catholic and Jewish schools and, in recent years, have increasingly not aimed to provide a specifically faith-based education. At the time of the 1944 Act, Jews and Catholics were the two most significant religious minorities in Britain. Caribbean immigration started in the 1950s, but as they were mostly Christians, the children of the Windrush generation could be accommodated easily in existing schools.

Immigration from South Asia in the 1960s and in the following decades happened at a time of declining church attendance, so, as the largely Muslim children of these families began attending state schools, the concept of state schools as part of the worshipping community of the Church of England was eroded. Despite the attempt of Margaret Thatcher’s government to turn back the clock, by requiring daily assemblies that were “largely Christian in character”, the trend towards the secularisation of state schools was clear.

Despite falling church attendance, Catholic schools continued to thrive, but the notion of Catholic schools set aside for a Catholic people has declined. The annual census carried out by the Catholic Education Service (CES), shows that the 827,000 children educated in Catholic schools in England today include a quarter of a million pupils who are not Catholics.

The very popularity of Catholic schools with parents has brought problems. If you take the country as a whole, there are roughly enough Catholic schools to accommodate every child whose parents want to have a Catholic education. But demographic changes have left an over-supply of places in areas such as Liverpool and east London and an under-supply in others, such as East Anglia and west London. The best schools in those under-served areas at both primary and secondary level are oversubscribed; some, such as the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park, west London, attract ten times more applicants than there are places available. This has led to the situation where even some Catholic parents see the best schools as exclusive enclaves, reinforcing the demand for a cap on faith-based admissions.

The more antagonistic climate saw a Labour education secretary, Alan Johnson, in 2006, make the first attempt to impose a cap. He proposed a cap of 75 per cent on faith-based admissions to new schools. He backed down in the face of opposition from Catholic and Jewish politicians but the seeds had been sown and in 2010 the Liberal Democrats insisted on a 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions for new free schools as the price for Michael Gove being allowed to introduce free schools. In the heat of the creation of the first coalition government in the UK since the war, there was no time to organise a campaign against what in any case was a ministerial decision that did not need legislation.

The impact on the Catholic sector was real and immediate – not just the introduction of the cap but that funding was made available only for free schools. Most Catholic schools were voluntary-aided, with funding provided through local authorities. Since 2010, only one voluntary-aided Catholic school has been opened and no free schools. David Cameron’s government chose to stick with this policy, even after the Conservative Party secured a majority in 2015.

It was only when Theresa May replaced Cameron as prime minister in 2016 that the situation changed. May understood religious issues more deeply than her predecessor and was sympathetic to the concerns of the Church, and included a commitment to scrap the cap in the 2017 Tory election manifesto. However, her failure to secure a majority meant that the new and more sceptical education secretary, Justine Greening, felt under no obligation to fulfil the commitment.

The fact that the hopes of the bishops and the CES have been dashed with Hinds’ decision not to abolish the cap should give the Catholic community pause for thought. Is there now a real threat to the future of state-funded Catholic schools? What does this more sceptical – occasionally even hostile – climate for faith schools mean for the way the Church promotes and defends Catholic education?

Most importantly, some humility would be appropriate. The Church’s partnership with the state in the running of its schools is unique in the world. The Catholic community has benefitted hugely from this partnership – and, of course, society as a whole has also benefitted from the existence of strong Catholic schools. But the declining numbers of Catholics – flattered though they are by immigration – makes the Church much weaker politically.

The days when “the Catholic vote” could be mobilised to put pressure on politicians are gone. Catholics are no longer willing to unquestioningly attack or defend whatever the Church wants them to. To many Catholics, the insistence that 50 per cent of the places at all new state-funded schools must be open to applicants of any faith or none seems reasonable.

Part of that humility should lie in a recognition that the Church is in partnership with the state and society, and must avoid making silly mistakes. It has to keep the culture wars over sexuality, divorce and transgender – which have caused such problems in Catholic schools in the US – at bay. The sacking from a British Catholic school of a gay or divorced teacher or governor, for example, or insensitivity to a gay or transgender pupil, would inflict serious damage to the cause of Catholic education.

The Church also has to become better at mobilising support for Catholic schools. The restoration of the role of local authorities in deciding whether to approve applications for new schools means that Catholics will have not only to demonstrate need but to campaign for them. Humanists may be few in number but they are vocal and well organised. The Church has to counter this. Immigrant communities – including East European, African and Asian Catholics – should be mobilised in support of the concept of Catholic schools as agents of social integration, something they can speak of with authority.

The decision to keep the cap marks a crossroads for Catholic education. The Catholic community should be proud of its schools, but if it is to secure their future it has to recognise the new and more hostile political reality. Most crucially, it must make the most of its assets – the communities of people in each school who make them the success they are. The CES was effective in mobilising Catholics for the campaign against the cap but it might have been even stronger with active lay leadership at diocesan and national level.

Catholic schools are now almost entirely and successfully lay-run. Catholic governors constitute the biggest lay apostolate in the Church. Diocesan education commissions should have stronger lay leadership, which is genuinely representative of and accountable to the Catholic education community. If the Church is to have a strategy for the education of Catholic children fit for the twenty-first century the lay voice – heads, teachers, governors and parents – must be heard, and the people who successfully run its schools should have real partnership with the bishops in shaping the future of Catholic schools.

Mike Craven is chair of the Cardinal Vaughan School Trust, and a director of The Tablet

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