LONDON — A former leader of the Anglican church has joined forces with Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists, secularists and Muslims to attack plans to allow Catholic schools to expand.

On March 6, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams co-signed a letter sent to The Daily Telegraph deploring plans to allow new Catholic schools to open. The letter describes the U.K. government’s intention to allow the expansion of Catholic education as “[a] divisive policy… deleterious to social cohesion.”

Defenders of Catholic schools are fighting back with a vigorous defense of the contributions of Catholic schools to the U.K. as a whole and of the rights of Catholic parents to be able to provide their children with a Catholic education.

“Existing Catholic schools, which can allocate all places on the grounds of faith, are the most socially and ethnically diverse schools in the country,” a spokesman for England’s Catholic Education Service (CES) commented: “They also educate more than 300,000 non-Catholics, including 27,000 Muslims.”

The CES representative also pointed out that Catholic schools are perceived differently from minority faith schools (non-Christian faith schools). “This is because minority faith schools are only popular with their respective community. Catholic schools, on the other hand, are extremely popular with parents of all faiths and none.”

The controversy stems from recent education-related political developments. During the U.K. general election campaign in 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May, leader of the Conservative Party, pledged to abolish “the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules” that prevent the Church from opening new schools.

The existing restrictions date back to 2010, when, as part of a political deal brokered to form a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, “teachers, charities and local communities” were promised “the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand.”

These words were interpreted by many as the beginning of an educational revolution allowing the establishment of publicly funded “free schools” whose policies and administration would largely be left to parents and teachers.

This innovation was to include “minority faith schools” and also “faith schools,” understood in the British context to mean principally Catholic, Anglican or Jewish schools. There was one caveat, however: New faith schools would not be allowed to have more than 50% of their intake belonging to the schools’ faith denomination. So, for example, a Catholic school could never allow more than half of its places to be reserved for Catholics, no matter how many Catholics lived locally.

 

Long-Standing Contribution

The Catholic Church has been a provider of education in England for centuries. Prior to the Reformation, it was the only provider of schools in England.

In 1850, following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England, the English bishops’ first priority became education, and Catholics started to build and open schools across England.

Subsequently, the 1944 Education Act allowed the Catholic Church to partner with the state through what became known as “Voluntary Aided Schools” — Catholic schools funded, at least in part, by the government. This system remains in place for Catholic schools within the English state-run educational system.

Church authorities welcomed May’s unequivocal pledge to remove the recent restrictions on new faith-based schools’ admissions policies, which have had a disproportionately negative impact upon Catholic schools.

Following the 2010 coalition government’s decree, the building of all new Catholic schools effectively ceased. The Church would not build schools if their admissions policies could not be set by Church leaders, because under canon law each diocesan bishop has responsibility for the provision of all Catholic education within his diocese and is obliged to ensure and commission sufficient places to meet the needs of baptized Catholic children residents in his diocese.

If the Conservative Party does keep its campaign promise, by contrast, new school construction could restart. The issue is pressing because the U.K.’s Catholic population, largely through immigration, has been outpacing current capacity; according to the CES, since 2010, existing Church schools have had to find an extra 50,000 places for Catholic pupils.

Speaking to the Register, the CES spokesman commented: “In Cambridge, for example, the opening of a new hospital, and the influx of nurses from the Philippines, Africa and Eastern Europe who work there, has increased the demand for Catholic school places in the city.”

Dioceses in the London area and East Anglia, where Cambridge is situated, experience this difficulty most acutely.

Helen Bates, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of East Anglia, told the Register that, paradoxically, the admissions “cap” is exacerbating the perceived problem it sought to alleviate.

“In the Diocese of East Anglia, the lack of Catholic schools means that increasingly only Catholic children can get into Catholic schools,” she said. “Whilst Catholic schools will always give priority to Catholic children, religious, ethnic and social diversity has always been a positive characteristic of Catholic schools and something that we seek to encourage and support. The cap means this is not always possible.”

East Anglia Diocese has plans to open eight new schools if the “cap” is removed.

Addressing the issue from a national perspective, the CES spokesman concurred, “All the cap achieves is that it prevents Catholic parents from having the same choice of schools enjoyed by other parents.”

 

Parents’ Perspective

James McCullough of East Anglia, a Catholic parent of two daughters, told the Register that because of the current situation, he and his wife have been forced to educate their children at home and at a fee-paying school some distance away.

“We feel that the sacrifices [we have made] are necessary to ensure that [they] receive a good, quality Catholic education, but it is not certain if these sacrifices can be endured permanently,” he said. A Catholic free school in the area would be very welcome.”

In light of the current national problems, some Catholic parents have opted for a different course of action.

Robert Teague is the headmaster of The Cedars School, an independent Catholic school for boys in London that opened in 2014 without any government funding.

“The free-school model was considered but rejected, in part because of the 50% cap,” he explained to the Register. “[For us] there had been a plan for a [Catholic] independent boys school for a long time, and it was the acquisition of a suitable building in 2012 that made it possible in the end.”

Since it opened, it has grown from 48 pupils to today’s student body of 180. Said Teague, “It’s clear that there is considerable demand for Catholic schools.”

 

The Political Landscape

Because the Conservatives did not win a majority in the 2017 general election, May remains prime minister but in a minority government. Soon after the election, she appointed Justine Greening education secretary. She has been ambivalent on faith schools.

In November, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales launched a petition calling on the prime minister to uphold her election promise. To date, the petition has gathered more than 18,000 signatories.

In January 2018, Greening was replaced by Damien Hinds, who is not only a Catholic, but also on record as favoring removal of the limit on his co-religionists attending Catholic schools. But the increased likelihood of change triggered renewed attacks on the concept of faith schools in the secular media.

The critics included a somewhat surprising ally in former Archbishop of Canterbury Williams, as witnessed by his signature on the letter published by The Daily Telegraph. The Register tried to contact Williams for further comment on the matter, but a spokeswoman explained he was unavailable for comment.

Speaking to the Register, Lord David Alton, a Catholic member of the House of Lords, said, “The Conservative Party included the promise to abolish the cap in their manifesto, and it would be a breach of good faith not to implement this promise. It would be a travesty if they bow to pressure from well-known atheists whose ideological sectarianism promotes division rather than cohesion.”

Lord Alton insisted that the current cap is not only unfair, but wholly unnecessary.

“If Catholic schools are required in law to turn away Catholic children, when demand for places exceeds the 50% cap, it places Catholics who want to establish new free schools in an impossible position,” he said. “The law rightly requires all schools to promote community cohesion — indeed, I promoted the amendment that put this requirement into law. And Catholic schools have a brilliant track record in this respect.”

K.V. Turley writes from London.