UK Government Breaks Promise on Catholic Schools

While minority communities in today’s Britain must be seen not to experience discrimination, there appears to be one exception: the Catholic community.

Official portrait of UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds
Official portrait of UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds (photo: Register Files)

The U.K.’s Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, has announced that the much-criticised ‘cap’ on faith schools will not now be scrapped. 

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 currently prevent faith groups such as the Catholic Church from opening new schools. 

Now in power, the Conservative government has changed its mind.

This morning, in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Todayprogramme, Hinds said: “We reflected long and hard on these difficult issues... We have concluded that it is right that we continue to have that cap.”

He went on to say that the government will not scrap the cap on religious-based admissions to new free schools but will instead provide funds for local authorities to create a new generation of "voluntary-aided" faith schools. What he did not say is that this has broadly been the status quo for the last years in any event, and in no way helps the faith community most affected by the 50 percent rule, namely the Catholic community. 

Mr. Hinds, who is Catholic, claimed the new policy would “give parents greater choice” as local councils will be allocated funds to open voluntary-aided faith schools with 100 percent faith-based admission where there is the demand.

This optimistic view of the future of Britain’s faith schools in general, and Catholic schools in particular, is one not shared by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and its Chair for Education, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, Archbishop of Liverpool. In a statement issued this afternoon he said: 

“In their General Election manifesto, the Conservative Party made a commitment to the Catholic community that the unfair rule effectively stopping the opening of new Catholic free schools would be lifted. Today the Government has broken this promise, dropped the pledge they made to our country’s 6 million Catholics and ignored the tens of thousands of Catholics who campaigned on this issue.

“This U-turn disregards the Government’s own data showing the 50 percent cap doesn’t create diversity, and sides with a vocal minority of campaigners who oppose the existence of Church schools. 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.”

Archbishop McMahon went on to add, “The Catholic Church has had a long and positive relationship with the State in the provision of education and we see today’s decision as a regressive step in this historic partnership.”

Today’s statement on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales is in sharp contrast to the welcome afforded to Theresa May’s unequivocal pledge last year to remove the recent restrictions on new faith-based schools’ admissions policies, which have had a disproportionately negative impact upon Catholic schools.

Bishop McMahon’s statement alluded to “a vocal minority of campaigners who oppose the existence of Church schools.” Earlier this year, a former leader of the Anglican Communion 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 British government’s intention to allow the expansion of Catholic education as a “divisive policy… deleterious to social cohesion.”

The ongoing cap on free school faith admissions means that any new faith-based schools can only allocate 50 percent of places on grounds of religion, a move which has been widely criticized by religious leaders, both Christian and non-Christian. This government limit on the number of Catholics attending a Catholic school has effectively meant that Church plans to build more Catholic schools, especially in London and East Anglia, have ground to a halt.

What we have now, therefore, is not just a continuation of an educational policy that discriminates against Catholic children attending Catholic schools, but also the continuation of a policy that has brought into sharp relief the existing Church-State accord on education provision for British Catholics. 

What this also teaches is that while minority communities in today’s Britain must be seen not to experience discrimination, there appears to be one exception: the Catholic community. 

What this latest government U-turn also demonstrates is that party manifestos at election time must henceforth be considered, at best, as vaguely aspirational rather than firm commitments to do something when votes are counted and the politicians are safely back in office. 

Many commentators here in Britain, both on the Right and the Left of the political spectrum, see this U.K. government as badly adrift on a whole range of policy issues. In light of today’s announcement of this latest policy U-turn, the government has managed to alienate a new set of voters.