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.
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