Why allowing Catholic schools to expand is good for us all

Academically excellent, socially & ethnically diverse, and in demand ... The Duchess of Cambridge waves to children from Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in London, July 1, 2014.

The Duchess of Cambridge meets children at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in London, July 1, 2014. Catholic schools are academically excellent, socially & ethnically diverse, and in demand from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

In her speech yesterday, the prime minister, Theresa May, said the government will seek to allow all schools in England to select pupils by ability, under plans that also allow grammar schools to expand. Among the announcements was a commitment to allow Catholic schools that are oversubscribed and want to expand to be able to choose up to 100 per cent of new pupils on faith grounds, not 50 per cent, as under the current rules. In a statement, the Catholic Education Service (CES) warmly welcomed the proposal. Here, a teacher and governor at a Catholic school explains why the announcement is such good news.

[John McAleer] There are two essential points to be grasped in understanding the prime minister’s remarkable announcement yesterday that her government intends to remove the cap on faith-based admissions for free schools and new academies, allowing new publicly funded Catholic schools to be built across Britain wherever there is demand.

The first is that new schools desperately need to be built to accommodate the 900,000 new school places needed in England by 2024. The second is that a large number of parents — both Catholic and non-Catholic — will want to send their children to Catholic state schools.

The Catholic Church in England is the largest provider of secondary schools and the second largest provider of primary schools (Catholic schools and academies make up 10 per cent of state-funded education) simply because they are beacons of academic excellence and oases of diversity and tolerance. Parents want to send their children to them — Catholic schools are currently educating more than 800,000 students  — because they are some of the best in Britain.

The Prime Minister has acknowledged this in her speech laying out her vision of Britain as “a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege”. Key to that vision is a good school place for every child. Hence, she says, “it’s right to encourage faith communities – especially those with a proven record of success, like the Catholics – to play their full part in building the capacity of our schools.”

Under current rules, new faith-based free schools or academies must admit at least 50 per cent of their children from different religious backgrounds if they are over-subscribed. The intention behind this rule was to improve the diversity of school intake; in practice, however, it has had little impact on many Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools because their schools are not popular with parents of other faiths.

But it has had a very marked negative impact on Catholic schools, because they are popular with parents of other faiths, yet the Church insists — with good reason — that its schools must have a majority Catholic intake (typically 70-75 per cent) in order to preserve the very ethos that makes them attractive.

Nor did the cap make sense for Catholic schools because the data shows they are among the most socially and ethnically diverse schools in Britain. Pupils at Catholic schools are more likely to be from ethnic minority backgrounds than other schools (27 per cent compared with 22.5 per cent in other schools.)

As the Prime Minister puts it, the current cap “is especially frustrating because existing Catholic schools are more ethnically diverse than other faith schools, more likely to be located in deprived communities, more likely to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and there is growing demand for them.”

The cap has prevented new Catholic schools opening in Britain because it inhibits the willingness of Catholics to sponsor a new academy or free school. They are unwilling because they do not want to be forced, by law, to turn away the very people Catholic schools are designed to serve. As the Chairman of the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales (CES), Bishop Malcolm McMahon OP, puts it, “the 50 per cent quota policy undermines the Government’s own aim of increasing parental choice, since, in the case of an oversubscribed Catholic free school, Catholic pupils whose parents wanted to send them to a Catholic school would have to be turned away because they were Catholic.”

As a result, everyone loses. Catholics are not being educated in Catholic schools; non-Catholics wanting their children to go to a Catholic school have even fewer places to apply for; and there is greater burden on the taxpayers. (The Church contributes  £20 million a year towards the capital costs of schools, a figure that would significantly increase should the Catholic Church build more of them.)

But what about religious diversity? Isn’t it important that students at school mix with students of other religious backgrounds? Absolutely it is. According to the 2015 Catholic school census, some 31.2 per cent of pupils at its state-funded schools are not Catholic, a figure that increases to 62.9 per cent at its private schools. As the CES put it in its statement yesterday: “One third of our pupils are from non-Catholic families. Our schools are particular popular with parents from the Muslim community, other Christian communities and with high proportions of those who have no faith.”

Yet you still find campaigners at the National Secular Society writing in the Huffington Post that “it’s hard to think of a more retrograde policy than the facilitation of greater religious segregation of children and young people in our education system”. What he doesn’t tell you is that Ofsted inspectors consistently applaud the strong ethos in Catholic schools and the sense of identity and belonging which leads to broad-minded, engaged citizens.

The secularist critique of faith schools is based on prejudice. The assumption is that religion divides, while secular rationalism somehow draws people together. There is no evidence for either, and plenty of independent evidence that Catholic schools produce young people who are tolerant, understanding and concerned for others.

Evans claims that the Catholic Church “insists that the public money it receives to run schools should be spent on providing schools to serve only people of the Catholic faith”. This is untrue: Catholic schools serve people of different faiths. But in any case, are not Catholics taxpayers too? Do they not have the right to expect education like anyone else?

The Prime Minister gets it. She sees that removing the cap will allow the growth in capacity that Catholic schools can offer, for the benefit not just of Catholics but of Britain as a whole.

The Catholic Education Service has published Performance Data of Catholic Schools, which speaks for itself:

  • 83 per cent of Catholic secondary schools have Ofsted grades of good or outstanding (74 per cent nationally).
  • At age 11, Catholic schools outperform the national average English and Math SATs scores by 6 per cent points.
  • At GCSE, Catholic schools outperform the national average by 5 per cent.
  • In Catholic schools, 64 per cent of pupils for whom English is an additional language achieve grades A*-C in both English and mathematics GCSEs (59 per cent nationally).
  • Catholic schools outperforms the national average by 4 per cent points for disadvantaged pupils achieving the English Baccalaureate.

Many Catholic schools over the next few weeks will be holding opening evenings for prospective parents who are interested in sending their child to the school next September. Parents keen to send their children to a school with a strong ethos and an outstanding academic record will be looking at their local Catholic school. After yesterday’s announcement, the prospect that there will be a place for them is considerably greater — and that’s good news for everyone.

[John McAleer is a Catholic Voice speaker who teaches Religious Education and is a governor at two Catholic schools.] 

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