Vicar’s daughter Theresa May might talk the talk when it comes to being a confessional Christian, but she has yet to walk the walk and it seems as though her Government is about to deal Catholics yet another blow, by reneging on the Tories’ manifesto promise to lift the admissions cap on new faith schools, which currently allows them to select only 50 per cent of their intake on the basis of faith.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Amanda Spielman, chief executive of Ofsted, who presumably has some inside knowledge, said that she was not sure that the proposals to lift the faith-based admissions cap were still on the cards and came out with the usual line about how 100 per cent admissions based on faith lead to increased levels of segregation within communities, which she is uncomfortable with.
It all sounds so reasonable on paper. However, there is absolutely no evidence in England at least, where Catholic schools have been operating since the nineteenth century, alongside schools of other Christian denominations, that they have in any way contributed to a divided or sectarian community. Regardless of denomination, there simply isn’t a post-Enlightenment history of English Catholics and Protestants living in deeply divided communities where they routinely attempt to commit acts of violence against each other.
Opponents of faith schools make frequent references to Northern Ireland but the differences between Protestants and Catholics go beyond mere religion, being based upon shared memories of violence, oppression and injustice. The links with Northern Ireland undoubtedly extend to Glasgow, another area of lively sectarianism, where the Orange Lodge still holds some influence, and arguably to Liverpool where there is a history of Orange walks. But both in Scotland and Liverpool, the sectarianism or rivalry is exhibited in the form of allegiance to football clubs, which were historically aligned to either Catholicism or Protestantism. If faith schools were the cause of such division, then it would be more widespread throughout other areas of England and Scotland.
There are other ways to encourage communities to mix and build up mutual respect than abolishing faith schools, which will only cause widespread anger and resentment. It may in any event prove to be counterproductive, as removing state provision for religious schools will only force various communities to set up their own independent schools, such as madrassas, which will be free to teach whatever values they choose, leading to an education system which is more atomised with a far more diverse curriculum, than is currently the case. This is the very opposite of what is intended by Amanda Spielman and those who are trying to achieve greater state control over the curriculum!
The elephant in the room in all of this is not Catholic religious education but that of ghettoisation in areas where there are large Muslim populations. Sir Nick Weller, head of an academy chain in West Yorkshire, has said that it is unhealthy for Bradford to have communities living ‘separate lives’ and has called for legislation to prevent children who are already segregated along ethnic or religious lines to be educated at different schools. He might be correct, but Catholics are already integrated into all areas of society and neither are Catholic schools likely to be infiltrated by religious extremists wanting to encourage pupils to commit acts of terrorism, or give unwavering support to terrorists. Western values of democracy and tolerance are rooted in Christianity and while some faith schools may be out of sync with the current zeitgeist regarding marriage and sexuality, that’s a far cry from wanting to subvert and destroy current norms.
Far from encouraging segregation, Catholic schools have the most ethnically diverse pupil intake of any other group of schools in the country. More than one in five black children attend a Catholic school and 36.1 per cent of children from an ethnic minority attend a Catholic school. Catholic schools educate 21 per cent more pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds compared to other schools. Christian faith schools really are not the problem when it comes to divided communities but unfortunately they look set to be the scapegoat, especially as the Government has to be seen to be even-handed in their treatment of religious education. Cracking down on faith schools will not help with Muslim integration.
The u-turn isn’t just about extremism, it’s also been driven by cash. Justine Greening has announced a £1.3 billion raid on the free schools’ budget (any new Catholic school would be a free school). This move is all about pleasing the Treasury, making it look as though the Department for Education has found more money for existing schools without having to increase their budget. The only way to do this is to cut provision for free schools and by announcing that she will not be lifting the cap on admissions to faith schools, Justine Greening knows full well that new Catholic schools won’t open and therefore her department won’t need to fund them and the cash can go elsewhere.
It’s not surprising then that the Catholic Education Service, who had as many as 50 new schools on the drawing board, is furious. In East Anglia, where Catholic schools are few, but demand is high, the diocese has invested a lot of its own financial and staff resources into developing eight new Catholics schools in Norfolk, Cambridge and Peterborough since September when Theresa May first promised to lift the admissions cap. One planned school is near a hospital to cater for the children of immigrant Catholic nurses from Poland, Africa and the Philippines.
Many Catholics who held their nose and voted for Theresa May despite their reservations (remembering that she was responsible for the introduction of same-sex marriage) precisely on the back of this manifesto promise, will now be feeling even more let down than ever before. Education can never be free of ideology – the idea that a confessional Christianity has no place in a classroom is in itself an ideology. Those who wish to abolish faith schools, and thus parental choice, have no problem imposing ideology upon children; it’s just that they think that their secular creed is vastly superior!
What many fail to realise is that it is precisely the Catholic or Christian ethos which makes faith schools so successful, and when this is abandoned, you end up with a set of values which has been so watered down, in order not to offend any one minority group, that they are virtually meaningless. If we start trying to impose education which is free from the influence of any kind of religious belief on our country’s children, we are going to end up with a society that believes in nothing at all, with a spiritual and religious vacuum ripe for the horrors of a totalitarian dictatorship.
The school system is already bursting at the seams and with another estimated 750,000 school places needed by 2025, Justine Greening is going to be hard-pushed to find other groups, apart from religious organisations, willing and able to provide these much-needed schools. Another u-turn may be on the cards.