Catholic Schools – Diverse or Divisive?

[Joe Ronan] In 2017 the 2,222 Catholic schools in England and Wales educated 854,827 students at all ages from primary to sixth form. One in ten schools in England and Wales are Catholic schools.   The Catholic presence in education is not new, or even recent. It can be traced back to the monastic and cathedral schools in the late sixth century onwards which provided the first schools and universities in England.   The Reformation saw Catholic education forced underground or abroad, but in around 1850 schools were re-established and became an important part of the education of the poor and immigrant communities of the new industrial age.

The key part played by church schools, Anglican, Catholic and Jewish, in educating large numbers of children – whose families could not afford private education – was recognised in the 1944 Education Act which saw most of those existing faith schools becoming Voluntary Aided schools, a status which they have to the current day.

The Voluntary Aided schools form an important part of the state school system but are managed separately by their sponsors, and are expected to make a contribution to their capital costs which for Catholic schools today amounts to tens of millions of pounds a year that comes from the Catholic parishes and dioceses across the country. If there were no Catholic schools, this additional money would need to be funded by the state. (Of course Catholics also contribute financially in the same way as the general population in paying taxes which partly go to funding education.)

The schools operate inside exactly the same educational structure as any other state school, but in recognition of the contribution they make are able to manage those parts of the curriculum related to religious education, reflecting the particular ethos of their faith. They also have flexibility in the setting of their admission criteria which allows them to cater particularly for the Catholic population that part funds them.

The Catholic schools are successful and popular with parents. They outperform the national averages for Key Stage 2 by 5% and GSCE results by 4%.

The schools are not however Catholic-only communities. Over 300,000 non-Catholic students attend the schools, some 35% of the total. Nor is the teaching staff exclusively Catholic – 49% are from other faiths or none.

Catholic schools are amongst the most ethnically diverse in the country; some 22% more pupils come from minority ethnic backgrounds than the national average.   Diversity of faith is found too. There were over 27,000 Muslim students in Catholic schools in 2017, as well as Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Jewish. The schools will often also reflect the cultural diversity of Catholicism which is present across the world.   They also have larger catchment areas than similar sized non-faith schools, often covering whole towns or districts which again increases the diversity of those attending.

It is against this background that the current controversy on the ‘Faith school cap’ plays out.

In 2010 the then Schools Minister David Laws introduced a cap of 50% on admissions to new academy schools on the basis of the faith of the student. This effectively prevented new Catholic Schools being opened; since a school would normally be proposed to serve areas of large Catholic population, and Catholic canon law forbids Bishops from turning away Catholic pupils solely on the basis of their faith, then the Church felt unable to propose new schools.

For the 2017 General Election, the Conservative manifesto included a promise to “replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools.” The current Education Secretary Damian Hinds has indicated that this manifesto promise is likely to be put into effect.

This has prompted the recent letter to the Telegraph from 70 signatories including humanists, atheists and some religious groups including the retired Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. In this they argue that scrapping the cap would be “deleterious to social cohesion and respect” and “allows schools to label children…and then divide them up”.

In fact the very popularity of Catholic schools with non-Catholic (and with non-Christian) parents would indicate that the fears for social cohesion and respect, whilst understandable, are not grounded in any reality. If they were, then such effects would have become evident over the last 160 years or so over which Catholic schools have been opened and operated with no such cap. On the contrary, the evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, is that the schools produce excellent results both on educational attainment and in the pastoral provision for all pupils, Catholic and otherwise. If this were not the case then the Ofsted inspection structure would highlight this and direct it to be corrected, since Catholic schools have to meet the same criteria in these respects as all state schools.

The only discrimination that the cap has produced is a discrimination against Catholics – it prevents them making use of schools that they fund both in general taxation and in specific giving and effectively denies them the freedom of choosing to attend a school with a Catholic ethos.   The diversity that the cap was intended to produce has never materialised. This may be due to the fact that the minority faith schools also in theory subject to the cap are only popular with their own communities. The Catholic schools however are already diverse because they are extremely popular with parents of all faiths and none.

The cap in short has been counter-productive. It has prevented the opening of well proven and diverse provision for children of all communities.

A letter from Catholic MPs in response to the Telegraph letter puts the issue in a unique perspective: ‘To argue that the operator of the most diverse existing schools cannot be allowed to open new ones for fears they will not be diverse is entirely illogical.’

Catholic provision has been at the heart of education in Britain for many centuries. It flourishes because it is recognised as an integral and valued part of British life. Catholics are not recognisable in the street as such, we have no distinctive dress or ethnicity, but we take a full part in civic life and contribute to social and economic development wholeheartedly. If you were to ask the average passer-by in what ways they were aware of a Catholic presence in the country it would likely be through the Catholic Schools.

The cap has been a well-intended but flawed attempt to promote diversity. It has had the opposite effect, and it is high time it was consigned to history.


Statistics on Catholic Education are taken from the Catholic Education Service Digest of 2017 Census Data for Schools and Colleges in England, and the similar document for Wales.

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