Catholics make up an increasing proportion of Conservative voters and supporters, as well as activists like myself. During the general election campaign I was proud to stand behind the Prime Minister in the hall of a Catholic state school in London and recognise some familiar faces around me.
Had fewer Catholics voted Tory in June, the party would have had an even greater struggle to stay in government. That makes it all the more surprising that the Tories seem to be on the verge of reversing one of their most Catholic-friendly policies. No announcement has been made yet, but the whispers in Westminster are that Catholic free schools are now under threat.
This is remarkable, given that free schools, and Catholic schools, have proved such successful models. The free schools programme took away local authorities’ monopoly over state education and gave it back to parents, teachers, charities and other groups who are now allowed to create and run state-funded schools themselves. More than 400 new schools have been approved since 2010, providing more than 230,000 new school places across the country.
But there have been no Catholic free schools, because during the Coalition the Lib Dems insisted on a cap which prevents a school from reserving more than half its places for pupils from a single faith. This, say the bishops, conflicts with their canonical duty to provide Catholic education for every Catholic child. While other religious groups have been largely unaffected, the admissions cap’s primary effect has been to ban the Church from setting up free schools.
Exhaustive research by Nick Timothy, then chief of staff in 10 Downing Street, convinced the Prime Minister that this policy was a total failure. As Theresa May pointed out a year ago, Catholic schools “are more ethnically diverse than other faith schools, more likely to be located in deprived communities, more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted, and there is growing demand for them”.
What those schools manage to achieve is remarkable. Catholic schools educate 21 per cent more pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds compared with others, and ethnic minority pupils in Catholic secondaries outperform the national average in GCSE results. Twenty-six thousand Muslims are being educated in Catholic schools right now, while more than a fifth of the non-Catholic pupils are of no religion at all.
No wonder May announced last year that the admissions cap was going to be scrapped, citing the inability to open Catholic free schools as the reason. When the snap election was called, the policy even made it into the Conservative manifesto. Catholic dioceses were exultant and sprang into action. One diocese planned to open as many as eight free schools in a single wave, and some went as far as to purchase sites in anticipation of the admission cap’s end. A Catholic free school next to a hospital, for example, would educate the children of immigrant doctors, nurses, and medical staff who had come from Catholic countries to staff our NHS.
It now seems that Education Secretary Justine Greening, who can sign the cap away with her mere signature, is hemming and hawing over the decision. Secular activists launched an effective campaign to convince her – in the face of all the evidence and research – that the cap needs to stay to protect community cohesion, while Catholics in the pews and at the school gate have not made their voices heard to their MPs.
But Greening’s aloofness can’t be blamed purely on outside campaigners. It’s not that the Education Secretary is anti-Catholic – she has criticised the Church of England vocally and specifically, while naïvely hoping that all “major faiths keep up with modern attitudes”. It’s that Greening’s metropolitan liberalism makes her more sympathetic to fringe secularists while putting aside the major concerns of religious minorities and one of England’s biggest educators.
While the Prime Minister still favours scrapping the cap, her authority has been diluted since the general election. It remains to be seen whether Cabinet ministers like Greening have been given leeway to break solemn manifesto commitments made to the voter. Sources at Number 10 point the finger squarely at the Department for Education, whether at ministers or at civil servants.
Scrapping the cap would provide an all-round win for education in England. The second largest provider of education would be able to create thousands more school places to alleviate an already overstretched demand. The Catholic Church’s track record means these schools would provide a better education than the national average to the most deprived parts of the population, all the while aiding cohesion by teaching a broad and diverse body of pupils.
Can the Tories really afford to alienate Catholics further? If this manifesto pledge is broken, it might be time to head down to the betting shop and put a fiver on Jeremy Corbyn making it to Downing Street.
Andrew Cusack is a writer, web designer, and Conservative party activist