The freedom to raise your children as you see fit is one of the most fundamental to a free and just society. The Catholic Church has always taught that parents are the primary educators of their child, and both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights recognise this primacy.
The Catholic Church is the oldest educator in England. Since the 19th century, it has worked in partnership with the state in helping deliver a high-quality education to young people from all parts of society and across the country. We are now the largest provider of secondary education and the second largest provider of primary education – a fact of which we should be proud.
When we Conservatives entered government in 2010 we were determined to decentralise the educational framework of this country and make it possible for parents and other groups to open up new state schools and alleviate a shortage of school places with backing from the taxpayers. The free schools programme has been a phenomenal success, with more than 400 new schools having been approved for opening since 2010, providing over 230,000 new school places.
Despite a dire need for new Catholic school places, the Church has disappointingly missed out on this new wave. As part of the price of approving the free schools programme as a whole, our Lib Dem coalition partners insisted on an admissions cap for faith-based free schools that meant no more than half of oversubscribed school places could be reserved for Catholics. This meant Catholic dioceses would have to turn away Catholics not because of lack of space or unsuitability but purely on the grounds of their religion. Canon law rightly prevents the bishops from doing this, since the provision of a sound Catholic education to the young faithful is their duty.
Supported by like-minded MPs, I raised this at Prime Minister’s Questions and urged the Department for Education to drop this harmful policy. The admission cap’s aim of preventing monocultural schools is admirable in many respects, but has proven totally ineffective. The only real tangible effect has been preventing new Catholic schools from opening.
Since 2010 we’ve seen the Catholic sector educate a further 50,000 pupils without being able to open new schools. Demand is higher still, and tens of thousands of pupils have missed out on a Catholic education because of our lack of capacity.
Meanwhile, Catholic schools are anything but monocultural. They are the most ethnically diverse in the country, and a third of pupils are non-Catholic anyhow. More than 26,000 Muslim pupils are currently being educated in Catholic schools. One in seven ethnic minority pupils in England and Wales attends a Catholic school, including more than one in five black children. More importantly, ethnic minority pupils do better in Catholic secondary schools and outperform the national average when it comes to GCSE results.
Even when Catholic schools are located in affluent areas, the catchment zone tends to be 10 times larger than that of a community school. This means that pupils come from a broader range of backgrounds and promotes mixing and socialisation between people who run the full spectrum of rich and poor, black and white, and every other arbiter.
The Catholic Church in England desperately wants to participate in the free schools programme. When the Prime Minister announced last year that the cap was going to be scrapped, she specifically cited that it had failed in its aim and was only preventing new Catholic schools from opening. When I raised this at PMQs the vicar’s daughter in No 10 was glowing in her praise for what our Catholic schools have achieved already. When the election was called this year, we even included dropping the admissions cap in our Conservative election manifesto.
Catholic dioceses up and down the country responded positively to this development and went into planning mode. Tens of thousands of pounds were invested into proposals for free schools. For example, one plan would have located a Catholic free school across the street from a hospital. Many of the foreign doctors, nurses and other staff in the NHS come from Catholic countries, and having the kids just across the way from work is an obvious plus. One Catholic diocese has plans to open up eight new free schools in a single wave. Enthusiasm is not lacking.
What, then, is the hold up? Removing the cap doesn’t require a new law to be passed as it’s only a policy. All we need, effectively, is the Education Secretary’s signature. The bishops’ conference, aided by the Catholic Education Service, is encouraging Catholics to write to the Education Secretary and to their local MP, asking Justine Greening to uphold the solemn manifesto commitment she campaigned on during the general election.
If the cap is scrapped, everyone wins. Keeping it only risks seeing more children, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, remain in schools delivering worse outcomes. It is vital that the Education Secretary acts now to alleviate this urgent demand.
Sir Edward Leigh is the Conservative MP for Gainsborough