22 February 2018, The Tablet

No new schools planned in eight Catholic dioceses

No new schools planned in eight Catholic dioceses

Nearly half of all Catholic dioceses in England have no immediate plans to build new schools should the current “faith cap” on admissions be lifted, while a further five are monitoring demand, a survey conducted by The Tablet has found.

This follows recent reports that the education secretary is planning to reverse the current policy, which bans new free schools admitting more than 50 per cent of pupils on the basis of their religion.

The Tablet contacted every diocese in England where the cap applies and found that eight of the 19 had no proposals, including Hexham and New­castle, Hallam and Brent­wood, which said they currently have sufficient school places for Catholic children.

Three dioceses did not respond, while only one said they had immediate plans.

The new education secretary, Damian Hinds (pictured), is expected to make a decision on the controversial policy shortly. In an interview with The Sunday Times last weekend, Mr Hinds was reported to have said he supported the abolition of the cap. The pledge to end the cap was in the Conservative Party’s 2017 election manifesto.

Responding to the survey findings, Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service (CES), said the uncertainty surrounding the cap had meant few dioceses had “spent a lot of time and money putting together actual concrete plans to propose new schools”. Several dioceses were likely to be looking at developing more tangible plans “once the cap is lifted”, he said.

Limited resources, the complexities of “place planning” and difficulties finding appropriate sites – particularly in urban areas – were among several factors delaying investigations, he added.

In 2016 the CES estimated a need for roughly 20,000 new school places, the equivalent of 35-40 new schools. That number still stands, according to Mr Barber, who explained that “lining everything else up to get those delivered straight away is another part of the picture”.

“What you will probably find,” he added, “is that most of those 20,000 places are in a smallish number of dioceses,” namely East Anglia and the London dioceses.

The survey showed that East Anglia, which has a high demand for school places, is the only diocese ready to create new schools – with eight planned, in Cambridge, Thetford, Peterborough and Norwich.

Meanwhile, in Middlesbrough, Kevin Duffy, diocesan schools’ commissioner, said that while they have sufficient places for Catholic children, they are considering an “alternative provision” school for pupils with behavioural difficulties.

A further seven dioceses did not have tangible plans but some were in dialogue with local authorities where more places could be needed in the future. A spokesperson for the Diocese of Shrewsbury said there were areas where “demand for places exceeds current provision” and a lifting of the cap would “enable us to address this issue”.

Southwark, Liverpool and Leeds did not respond to The Tablet’s requests for data. Westminster said they “do not currently have plans [to build new schools]” on account of the cap being in place.

The Tablet’s findings follow a vigorous campaign by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the CES for the government to lift its 50 per cent “faith cap” on school admissions, which they argue has prevented the Church from opening new schools for the last eight years. The cap stipulates that new free schools must allocate half of their places to pupils without any reference to religion.

The bishops say this contravenes canon law because Catholic children could be turned away on account of their faith.

This week the CES welcomed Mr Hinds’ comments, saying it was looking forward to “strengthening its ongoing partnership with the government, providing high-quality schools where there is parental demand for them”.

A statement from the Department for Education did not confirm or deny the report that Mr Hinds will lift the cap, but said it would be “responding to the Schools that Work for Everyone consultation, including regarding plans for the faith cap, in due course”.


Pic: Members of the Maria Fidelis Roman Catholic School Gospel Choir at St Mary's University College in Twickenham, London. Picture by: Peter Macdiarmid/PA Archive/PA Images

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