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Universe Comment: Faith schools’ admissions cap is discrimination by another name

Universe Comment

In a recent column for The Times, former No 10 speechwriter Clare Foges joined the serried ranks of those opposing faith schools by claiming that Prime Minister Theresa May is ‘encouraging segregation’ by proposing to lift the admissions cap on faith schools.

It’s an erroneous criticism, one that proved even more upsetting when it was followed by the childish taunt that it was time for the Government to ‘put the Catholic Church in its place’.

The admissions cap has long been contentious. Introduced in 2010 it states that in any new faith school the maximum number of pupils on the roll who identify with that faith cannot be more than 50 per cent. It was introduced to create religious diversity in faith schools, but has failed to do so.

In the column, Ms Foges tells Education Secretary Damian Hinds that his plan to scrap the cap placed on new, over-subscribed faith schools would only promote segregation. It’s a claim that has been made before, and will probably be made again, but that doesn’t mean The Universe shouldn’t challenge it.

We weren’t alone in questioning the language used or the reasons behind Ms Foges’ aggressive anti-Catholic stance. Catholic politicians also leapt to the defence of our schools, with many pointing out that, rather than creating segregation, the opposite reality was in fact the truth.

Lord Alton of Liverpool pointed out that Ms Foges was repeating the same inaccurate research as the British Humanist Association and other leading atheist groups as they pressurise the Government into retaining the admissions cap.

“They have campaigned to keep the cap on Catholic schools. They say they are places that promote division and intolerance,” he told The Universe, adding: “The opposite is true.”

Lord Alton said that to him, Catholic schools were “schools that value their faith but understand, value and respect the faith of others”. Regarding Ms Foges’ attack, he said that “this kind of hostility to people of faith is old-fashioned narrow mindedness and belongs to another age.”

Ms Foges, who received the title ‘the Prime Minister’s larynx’ during her role as David Cameron’s speechwriter, claims that Mr Hinds is in favour of ‘mono-religious, mono-cultural schools’.

She also highlights Mr Hinds’ faith and hints at a whiff of corruption regarding a ‘donation’ to his office by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. However, as The Universe previously reported, that donation amounted to little more than the Church’s internship scheme, which runs to give young Catholics an insight into working in public life, politics and public affairs, rather than a sinister attempt to manipulate public policy.

After all, how much influence can a young undergraduate really wield?

It wasn’t Ms Foges’ only error. She also claims that the ‘Catholic lobby’ is ‘particularly powerful’ as the Government is relying on the Catholic Church to open more free schools. Praise God if that were true: we might see some pro-life measures enacted through Parliament!

Ms Foges’ criticism of the Church for not opening more free schools seems to suggest that she believes the Church is somehow holding the Government to ransom in order to obtain the abolishment of the faith admissions cap.

Again, she should check her facts. The irony is, with the admissions cap in place, the success of Catholic schools is also their downfall. By opening a new school in an area with greatest demand, the bishops would be creating a rod for their own back as once the number of Catholic entrants reached 50 per cent, they would automatically have to turn away eligible Catholic children – thus breaking Canon Law, which clearly states that Catholic bishops are forbidden from turning away Catholic pupils solely on the basis of their faith.

A rock, and a hard place.

Ms Foges’ column was prompted by a reasoned argument put forward in rival newspaper The Telegraph by a group of influential Tory MPs. The letter, signed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Edward Leigh, Martin Vickers and Sir Bill Cash, explained that the ‘main practical effect’ of the admissions cap has been to prevent new Catholic schools from opening, which is ‘denying thousands of pupils the opportunity of a place in a diverse and nurturing environment’.

The Tory MPs add that ‘open, inclusive, diverse and integrated schools are to be welcomed, and existing Catholic schools provide a very good model for this’.

The admissions cap was a Liberal Democrat policy brought in as part of the Coalition Agreement signed in 2010. While it aimed to increase faith diversity in schools it has only resulted in discriminating against the Catholic Church. Nick Timothy, the chief architect of the proposal to abolish the faith cap and Mrs May’s former chief-of-staff, has even admitted this, stating that the cap is ‘effectively discriminatory for Roman Catholics’.

Ms Foges isn’t alone in her criticism. A letter signed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the chief executive of Humanists UK, Andrew Copson, and Richard Dawkins, among others, claimed the admissions cap made good sense, and scrapping it would be ‘deleterious to social cohesion and respect’.

That’s not a view we share at The Universe, nor do our readers or the Tory ‘Gang of Four’ who wrote to The Telegraph. Instead they highlighted the diverse and cohesive characteristics of Catholic schools, pointing out that a third of Catholic pupils are non-Catholic and Catholic schools educate more than 26,000 Muslim pupils.

They also note that Catholic schools educate 21 per cent more pupils from ethnic backgrounds compared to other schools – and they perform above the national average at GCSEs.

‘To argue that the operator of the most diverse existing schools cannot be allowed to open new ones for fears they will not be diverse is entirely illogical,’ the group of Tory MPs write.

‘Advocates for diversity in education would do better to support the initiative to open more high-quality schools serving many of the most disadvantaged in our society. Scrapping the cap is the simplest and easiest way of achieving this.’

At the June 2017 General Election the Government made it a manifesto pledge to remove the admissions cap. Former Liberal MP Lord Alton has urged the Conservative Party to stay true to its word and scrap the cap, and not to cave in to pressure from atheists and risk becoming a group of hot air and empty promises.

“It would be a travesty if they bow to pressure from well-known atheists whose ideological sectarianism promotes division rather than cohesion,” he said.

“Politicians lose the trust of people if they make promises but don’t then keep them. It’s why people turned against the Liberal Democrats in such large numbers at the 2015 and 2017 elections – they promised not to support exorbitant student loans and in a breach of good faith did exactly the opposite,” he added.

The Government would do well to ignore ridiculous claims from Ms Foges and others who say the abolishment of the admissions cap would promote segregation and destroy diversity.

It is a well-known fact that Catholic schools are some of the best schools in Britain today, which is one of the reasons so many parents, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, want their pupils to be educated in one.

However, to force the Catholic Church to discriminate against a Catholic parent and their Catholic child because of their faith is abhorrent.

Ms Foges writes that the Catholic Church should be ‘politely’ reminded of Jesus’ words in Luke 18:16: ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not’.

She adds: ‘Unless the Lord whispered the caveat “apart from little children of different faiths”, it is difficult to square this benevolence with the Church’s stance’.

However, perhaps Ms Foges should consider the Catholic children and their parents whom Jesus is calling to him, and how the admissions cap is preventing these children from answering his call.

In other words, while trying to cleverly make the Church look as though it is discriminating against others, Ms Fogues instead reveals that those campaigning for the retention of the cap are discriminating against Catholics and their religious right to practise their faith.

Catholic schools can remain diverse without the cap, as pupils of other faiths and none at all will always be welcomed.

However, the State preventing Catholics from practising their faith through education is a very slippery slope indeed.

This comment is published in this week’s edition of The Universe, which is available digitally on Thursday 15th March and in print on Friday 16th March.
To subscribe to The Universe print edition see: www.thecatholicuniverse.com/shop/catalog/product/view/id/30/s/universe-uk-annual-print-subscription/category/3/
Digital edition: www.thecatholicuniverse.com/shop/subscribe-digital/the-universe-europe.html

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