No one could blame the National Secular Society for feeling a little smug when it received an assurance last year that the Government had no plans to review the 50 per cent limit on faith-based admissions to free schools. The rule effectively prevented the Catholic Church from opening such schools, which are “free” in the sense that they aren’t controlled by a local authority and can be set up and run by parents and other groups.
But how times change. Last Friday, the Prime Minister said she intended to scrap the 50 per cent rule, describing it as an “obstacle” to the creation of “more good faith schools”. The NSS was horrified; the British Humanist Association appalled. The Catholic Education Service was delighted, of course. It said the reform would lead to “thousands of new Catholic school places across the country”.
Why did the Government abandon the cap so abruptly? In a sense, the answer is Brexit – ironically, perhaps, considering episcopal support for Britain remaining in the EU. The change is an indirect consequence of the referendum result, which led to the resignation of David Cameron, which led to Theresa May’s victory in the Tory leadership contest, which led to the appointment of a steelworker’s son called Nick Timothy as her joint Chief of Staff.
Back in January, Timothy was director of the New Schools Network. In an article that month for the ConservativeHome website, he argued that the 50 per cent cap was “effectively discriminatory” against Catholic schools. “It is almost certainly against canon law,” he noted, “for a Catholic bishop to set up a school that turned away Catholic pupils on the basis of their Catholicism”.
Questioned by the BBC, Timothy argued that “faith schools are more likely to be ethnically diverse, are more popular with parents, and are delivering a better quality education than other types of school”. It was an eye-catching assault on a metropolitan liberal shibboleth – backed up with impressive statistics.
Timothy clearly influenced the Prime Minister’s decision to lift the cap last week. Indeed, her announcement seemed closely modelled on Timothy’s ConservativeHome article. May said she would “encourage the grouping together of mono-racial and mono-religious schools within wider multi-racial and multi-religious trusts”. Timothy had urged the Government to “encourage the growth of new and existing school chains so schools that are mono-racial and mono-religious because of their geography are incorporated into multi-racial and multi-religious trusts”.
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