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Britain: Free schools – a door slams shut

Damian Hinds ends hopes for Catholic free schools

Since January, when Damian Hinds was appointed education secretary in Theresa May’s reshuffle, everyone had agreed that he was likely to lift the cap on new Catholic free schools. The Tories had promised to do so, and Hinds – a weekly Mass-goer – publicly supported the idea.

Westminster-watchers said that Hinds would make it a priority, as soon as this careful operator had prepared a full data-based defence of the policy. Whispers from the Department for Education suggested that an announcement was in the works. A panicked letter to the Daily Telegraph, signed by secularists from Richard Dawkins to ex-Top of the Pops presenter Jamie Theakston, warned the government that new papist schools would be “exclusive, monocultural [and] segregated”. It all looked very promising.

So what happened between January and last week, when Hinds announced that the ban would remain in place? The official Department for Education press release didn’t say much, beyond an awkward reference to “social cohesion”.

Since Catholic schools are exceptionally diverse in terms of ethnicity and class, this seems an odd reason to prevent new ones. Existing Catholic schools can select up to 100 per cent of pupils on the basis of faith; they are not, as far as anyone knows, producing a generation of sectarian fanatics. Keeping the free school admissions limit at 50 per cent Catholic – which the bishops say would force them to break their canonical obligations to Catholic parents – seems pointless. And for parents, who often go to great lengths to get their children into Catholic schools, the decision will be disappointing.

It is possible that the secularist lobbying paid off. Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said in a statement: “An ominous lesson can be drawn of how a government can acquiesce with a small and largely secularist lobby to undermine the freedom in which Christians can live and educate their children.”

Another theory is that the Department for Education is worried about tensions between and within communities. There might be a wave of applications for Muslim fundamentalists wanting to set up schools; in some areas, separate schools for Muslims and Sikhs could increase local hostilities.

Francis Davis, a government advisor, backed Hinds’s decision in an article for Conservative Home, but speculated: “It may be that Hinds was unwilling to say publicly that lifting the 50 per cent faith cap for the tiny number of areas reportedly wanting Catholic free schools risked a flow of applications from organisations focused on ethnic and religious purity and political grievances – and concentrated more intensely in certain areas, too.”

In March, the Government’s green paper on “integrated communities” expressed anxiety about schools furthering segregation. But it also implied that this wasn’t necessarily a barrier to Catholic free schools. The green paper praised the “many excellent examples” of schools working on social integration: for instance, it cited St Joseph’s Catholic junior school in Leyton, which had “established relationships with the Quwwat-ul-Islam Muslim school, resulting in pupils visiting each other’s schools and reciprocal visits to places of worship”. New free schools, it said, would only be approved after an assessment of what they will do for integration.

It looked like a basis for allowing free schools, including Catholic ones, while allowing the government to prevent, say, a Muslim school if it might be a cause of conflict with the local Sikh community. But now even this plan, if it was a plan, has apparently been abandoned.

Andy Lewis, assistant head teacher at St Bonaventure’s, Forest Green, London, says the government’s decision is a “major setback” for Catholic education. Free schools could have been opened at the discretion of the diocese. By contrast, the voluntary-aided ones will need the approval of the local authorities – so proposals will have to face well-marshalled secularist campaigners. “The reality is, we will not see new Catholic schools.”

On Twitter, the Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh dismissed the offer of voluntary-aided schools: it was “a model that hasn’t been encouraged for ten years”.

There is no getting round it: this is a defeat for the bishops, for the Catholic Education Service and for politicians such as Sir Edward Leigh who have campaigned for the cap to be lifted. And the language with which they reacted suggests the importance of Hinds’s decision. Catholic schools have done everything they are supposed to. They were engines of social integration. Still the government has kept the door closed.

Many Catholics, bishops and laity, see this as a broken promise and a “betrayal”. It may also be an opportunity. Catholic schools face many challenges in a secular age: recruiting Catholic teachers, teaching difficult truths on sex and gender, dealing with the Government’s worryingly vague “British values” agenda. The Hinds decision may be a chance to look at these issues and to focus on the quality, as well as the quantity, of Catholic education.