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Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2494

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Schools cap U-turn an ominous sign of ideology trumping parents’ rights, says Bishop of Shrewsbury

The Government’s refusal to uphold a Conservative Party manifesto pledge to remove an admissions quota from religious schools represents a blow to the rights of Christian parents, the Bishop of Shrewsbury has said.

The Rt Rev. Mark Davies said the decision of Education Secretary Damian Hinds to retain the 50 per cent cap on Catholic pupils in free schools was an ominous sign that the freedom of Christian parents to educate their children was being made subservient to ideology.

The Bishop said 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.

In a homily preached during Mass for the National Conference of the Catenian Association in Telford, Shropshire, on May 13, Bishop Davies said that policy effectively barred the Church from a field of education

The Bishop told 550 representatives that the Government had capitulated to the demands of a vocal minority opposed to the existence of church schools.

Bishop Davies said: “This Sunday, we all are aware that the Government has gone back on its manifesto promise to remove the admissions quota which prevents the opening of Catholic free schools. It is a situation not unlike that of a century ago, which sees a Governing Party swayed by a vocal minority.

“It is a decision which is not merely a betrayal of a manifesto pledge or the promises made to the Catholic community. It represents a deeper shift in attitude across the whole political spectrum, where the rights and choices of Christian parents in raising their own families are made subservient to an ideology.

“I say this, because it is was not diversity or social inclusion that is at issue. We know Church schools represent the fullest ethnic diversity and contribute enormously by their values to social cohesion. It appears to be an ideological understanding of ‘diversity’ which has seen the Church barred from a particular field of education in spite of the facts.

“This was very definite defeat for Catholic education and more specifically the aspiration of parents seeking a Catholic education for their children. However, it is a defeat from which an ominous lesson can be drawn of how a government can acquiesce with a small and largely secularist lobby to undermine the freedom in which Christians can live and educate their children.”

The cap was introduced by the Coalition government of David Cameron and it means new Catholic free schools must turn away Catholic pupils simply because they are Catholic once the threshold of a 50 per cent intake of Catholic pupils has been met.

The bishops have informed the Government that such a practice would contravene the Code of Canon Law, leaving them powerless to open Catholic schools free from the control of local authorities.

The Prime Minister had promised to abolish the cap and her Party manifesto acknowledged the difficulties the policy was causing to the Church, which has been unable to engage with the free school system for the past eight years.

Justine Greening, the previous Education Secretary, was reluctant to act, however, but it was expected that Mr Hinds, a former pupil of St Ambrose College in Hale Barns, Cheshire – a Catholic school situated within the Diocese of Shrewsbury – would move swiftly to remedy the problem.

Instead, Mr Hinds opted to retain the cap on free schools while allowing Catholic voluntary-aided schools to open with the permission of local authorities and to permit them to select all of their pupils on grounds of faith.

Secularists had previously lobbied the Government to retain the cap, arguing that religious schools were divisive and that they allegedly wounded social cohesion.

The Catholic Education Service has repeatedly produced evidence, however, to show that its 2,142 schools are among the most diverse in the country, with the majority of them serving less affluent families within the state sector and drawing 36 per cent of pupils nationally from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool, chairman of Department for Education and Formation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, severely criticised the failure of the Government to scrap its “unfair rule”.

He said: “The Government has broken this promise, dropped the pledge it made to our country’s six 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 per cent 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.

He continued: “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.

“We remain committed to our vision of education which consistently delivers high-quality schooling and contributes to the common good. Therefore we will continue to work with the Department for Education to address the urgent demand for new Catholic schools.

This commitment means we will pursue the possibility of new Catholic voluntary aided schools despite the direction of travel for nearly a decade being towards academisation.”

The archbishop added: “Voluntary aided schools are an important part of the Catholic sector and it is significant that the Government has singled out Catholic education as an area to fund directly.

“This is rightly in recognition of the importance of Catholic schools to local communities and the contribution they make to the wellbeing of society.”

Mr Hinds told BBC Radio 4 that he had “reflected long and hard on these difficult issues” before concluding that it was “right that we continue to have that cap”.

£Children only get one chance at an education and they deserve the best, wherever they live and whatever their background,” he added.

“By creating new schools where they are needed most and helping all great schools to grow, we can give parents greater choice in looking at schools that are right for their family, and give children of all backgrounds access to a world-class education.”

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “The VA route already allows for schools to apply to open with up to 100 per cent faith based admissions.

“The department will work with local authorities to create these schools where they are needed, subject to a 10 per cent contribution from the provider to the capital costs.

“To support the measures to promote social cohesion announced in the integrated communities strategy, these schools – as all schools do – will continue to be expected to play an active role in their communities. This could include twinning with other schools and ensuring diversity on the governing board.

“Examples of schools already doing this include St Joseph’s Catholic Junior School in Leyton, which has a strong record of working with local Muslim, Jewish, Christian and non-faith schools.”

(Photo by Simon Caldwell)