Catholic schools are diverse and successful. How did Rowan Williams end up opposing them?

Rowan Williams (Getty Images)

Catholic schools are exceptionally diverse, yet the signatories of a letter in yesterday’s Telegraph cited “diversity” to argue in favour of the current ban on opening new ones. Seventy humanists, secularists, politicians, and religious leaders – among them Dr Rowan Williams – oppose the Government’s pledge to scrap the faith-based admissions cap for free schools.

The cap means a new free school can only reserve half its places for pupils of its own religion, but canon law rightly forbids bishops from turning down Catholic pupils on the sole basis of their faith as the cap would require. The policy may well have been designed to prevent monocultural Islamic schools as seen in the “Trojan Horse” scandal (although none of the Birmingham schools involved were faith schools), but after years in operation its main practical result has been to act as an effective ban on new Catholic schools being opened.

Even the most cursory look at the facts will disprove the campaigners’ main argument that the ban must continue because new Catholic schools will not be diverse. The letter favours state schools that are “open, inclusive, diverse, and integrated” – something the Catholic Church already achieves in this country. Given that a third of pupils at our schools are non-Catholic, and that the Church educates over 26,000 Muslim pupils, the signatories’ argument is hopelessly self-contradictory.

They believe Catholic schools will not be diverse, but the facts point in the opposite direction. One in seven ethnic minority pupils in England and Wales attends a Catholic school, including more than one in five black children. Across the board, Catholic schools educate 21 per cent more pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds compared to other schools. And these pupils in Catholic secondary schools perform better than the national average when they take their GCSEs.

Open, inclusive, diverse, and integrated – it sounds like a success story. So why are these campaigners so passionately opposed to new Catholic schools? One might point to the deep-seated and long-standing prejudice against Catholics in English society. Yet our common experience of Dr Williams, the cuddly former Archbishop of Canterbury, is that he is an open-minded, kind-hearted soul. On the woolly liberal end of the spectrum, to be sure, but a friendly face – in short, not a bigot. Why then, would someone of such seemingly unimpeachable credentials feel so free and happy to line himself up with the anti-Catholics?

Ultimately, he has been caught up in a power play. Humanists UK, the fringe group who organised yesterday’s letter, don’t run any schools of their own, but they certainly don’t want the Catholic Church to be running schools either. They support the ban on new Catholic schools because they want to see the Catholic influence on free education in this country totally removed. Their campaign echoes the nineteenth-century frenzy in the United States, when alarmist cartoons pictured long hands reaching across the globe from Rome to snuff out the light of American liberty.

The letter cites the dangers of monoculturalism, but what measures do they advocate taking against schools that are monoculturally secular? That are monoculturally materialist? That are monoculturally lacking in any diversity of thought or philosophy other than the prevailing status quo?

While the signatories’ language is modern and liberal, their policy is regressive and irrational. By no possible logic can one defend diversity by maintaining a policy that prevents new diverse schools from opening.

Pupils have a right to a high-quality education and the Department for Education continues to require schools to teach about other cultures and religions in significant detail. Parents also have a right to see their children educated in a manner they see fit – a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

If you want diverse schools delivering high-quality education to many of the poorest in our society, you should want more Catholic schools. That is why the government has pledged to get rid of the cap. It is a pity that anti-Catholicism is preventing some people from supporting the government on this. And it is a great shame that Dr Williams has allowed himself to be used as a willing pawn.