The Bishops of England and Wales have launched an urgent appeal to Catholics to pressurise the government to keep its pledge to lift the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions to new free schools, amid growing concerns that the Conservatives may renege on the pledge.
The Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, has called on the government to “stand by” the Conservative manifesto promise ahead of last June’s General Election. Speaking at a press conference after the bishops’ plenary meeting in Leeds last week, the archbishop said the government’s response was keenly awaited.
“For 170 years there has been an agreement with successive governments that Catholic families have the right to have their children educated in the way that conforms to our faith. It was in the manifesto that they were going to remove this cap. We’ve said to the government we want you to stand by the manifesto promise.”
The bishops have now urged people to sign an Online petition on the bishops’ conference website, which calls on them to contact the Education Secretary, Justine Greening, about the ‘unfair’ admissions cap. Referring to what it says is the government’s “critical decision” on the issue, it goes on to say that by “forcing Catholic schools to turn away Catholic school children on the basis of their faith, the very principle of a Catholic parent’s right to choose a Catholic education is under threat.” The bishops have also called on diocesan clergy to promote it at parish level.
It’s also emerged that the Bishop of Brentwood, Alan Williams, met Ms Greening along with Catholic Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh and the Director of the Catholic Education Service, Paul Barber, last month to discuss the issue.
A spokesman for the Catholic Education Service said the bishops wanted the Catholic community to find its voice quickly. “Every time we ask the government what’s happening, they say ‘we will let you know in due course.’ It’s what they’re not saying that’s making us concerned…Our hunch is that unless the Catholic community stands up and shows what a big issue this is, then the argument may be lost.”
The bishops have argued that under canon law rules, Catholic schools are not allowed to turn away Catholic pupils on the grounds of their Catholicism, hence the need to lift the cap. The decision now rests with the Education Secretary and does not require a vote in parliament.
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has personally expressed her support for the move, telling parliament earlier this year: “We do believe it’s important to enable more faith schools to be set up and faith schools to expand.”
A spokesman for the Department of Education said no further information was available but the government would “respond in due course.”
There are 2142 Catholic schools in England, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the national total of maintained schools. Over 823,000 pupils are educated in Catholic schools; 68% of students are Catholic and 36% are from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the CES.
PICTURE: Education Secretary, Justine Greening leaves 10 Downing Street ©PA