A petition launched by the bishops of England and Wales which calls on the government to stand by its manifesto commitment to lift the faith cap on school admissions has received 15,000 signatures in just three weeks.
The “phenomenal” response, said the Catholic Education Service (CES), is testimony to one of the most successful political campaigns the Church has undertaken in recent years.
The bishops want the government to honour an election pledge to scrap the admissions cap, which currently prevents new free schools from admitting more than 50 per cent of their pupils on the basis of faith. It means that if new schools are oversubscribed, only half the places can go to Catholics and other Catholic applicants would be rejected. This, say the bishops, goes against canon law. The Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, commented: “Being Catholic should never be a barrier to getting into a Catholic school. We’d be failing our young if our community was to let this happen. That’s why we’re urging all Catholics and those who support the principle of parental choice to write to the secretary of state for education, to show her the strength of feeling on this.”
Catholic Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh said he would be bitterly disappointed in his own party if the government does not stick to its promise. Speaking to The Tablet, Sir Edward said he was “quietly confident” the matter would be resolved by Christmas. The MP added that he had discussed the issue with the prime minister, Theresa May, who, he said, was sympathetic and “understood the issue”.
However, he revealed that a meeting he had in October with the education secretary, Justine Greening, along with the Bishop of Brentwood, Alan Williams, and the CES director, Paul Barber, “was not entirely a success”.
He said that Ms Greening had “winced” when they had reminded her that this was a Conservative manifesto pledge. Sir Edward said that the secretary of state didn’t seem to understand “you can’t change canon law like you can change political policies”. He said that by springing into action with a petition the bishops had ensured the issue was being spoken of from pulpits up and down the land. “It would be intolerable if nothing happens and the cap stays. The only people who will suffer will be the Catholics.”
His fellow Catholic Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg also added his voice to those putting pressure on the government. On the ConservativeHome website, he wrote that there was no “wriggle room” over the pledge: “If manifestos are to mean anything then politicians must implement as much of them as possible. This is an easy one to deliver on, will be popular with parents and, most importantly, will serve pupils well.”
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