A bishop is urging Catholics to lobby their MPs over a Conservative manifesto pledge which, if kept, would pave the way for up to 40 new Catholic schools.
The Conservatives had promised to allow new Catholic free schools to give priority to Catholic pupils. Previously there had been a 50 per cent cap on the proportion of pupils that free schools could admit on the grounds of faith. This cap had prevented the Catholic Church from opening any free schools.
The pledge to abolish the cap, however, was missing from the Queen’s Speech last week.
Bishop Alan Hopes of East Anglia has called on parishioners to write to MPs asking them to support the removal of the cap. The bishop said he had already written to all the MPs within his diocese.
The Diocese of East Anglia, he said, had already developed bids for eight new Catholic schools in Norfolk, Peterborough and Cambridgeshire.
“We are now simply awaiting the opportunity to submit these bids, and the removal of the cap is the final piece of the jigsaw to enable this to happen and for new Catholic schools to become a reality,” said Bishop Hopes.
The admissions cap was introduced in 2010 with the intention of promoting religious diversity. “All the cap achieved was to bar the Catholic Church from opening new schools,” Bishop Hopes wrote.
“This is because it would result in Catholic schools turning away Catholic pupils on the grounds of their Catholicism, a feature which is prohibited by canon law.”
In England, free schools are state-funded, but not under the jurisdiction of a local authority. Proposals for new free schools can be put forward by groups independent of the government, for instance faith and community organisations, parents or charities.
Unlike the Conservatives’ grammar schools policy, removing the cap does not need any primary legislation, only the political will of the Education Secretary, who is currently Justine Greening.
The Catholic Education Service (CES), an agency of the bishops’ conference, said last year that there was demand for 40 new Catholic schools across England and Wales. East Anglia, Southwark and Westminster in particular were in need of new schools, it said.
Paul Barber, director of the CES, said: “Since the announcement about the removal of the 50 per cent faith admissions cap, dioceses have been working hard to put together proposals for new Catholic free schools. Ditching the cap is the last obstacle that would see these schools turn from proposals into reality.
Mr Barber said the Church only intends “to build schools where there is need for them”, but he suggested there was a lot of demand: “across the country we are seeing demand from tens of thousands of parents.”
Following the Conservatives’ failure to obtain an absolute majority, the government has dropped several policies that featured in its manifesto, including its controversial social care proposals.
While the absence of the faith schools policy from the Queen’s Speech does not necessarily mean it has been abandoned, it does suggest that the issue has moved down the Government’s agenda. The Queen’s Speech sets out the legislative programme for the next couple of years.
Abortion amendment criticised
Pro-lifers have expressed dismay at an amendment to the Queen’s Speech for the state to fund abortions of women travelling to England from Northern Ireland.
The amendment was proposed by a small group of cross-party MPs and follows a Supreme Court ruling that rejected the idea of state funding.
Pro-life group SPUC said the amendment would “do nothing for the welfare of women in Northern Ireland”.
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