Feature

TILTING AT WINDMILLS

Damian Hinds was appointed as the Secretary of State for Education last week. The smouldering debate over faith schools also flared into flames again last week. The connection? Damian Hinds is a Catholic.

It took Humanists UK, outraged at the appointment of a person of faith to public office, less than 24 hours to get an article in the media claiming that the Catholic church, by supporting an intern, was guilty of ‘pernicious and deeply inappropriate political lobbying’ and that Damian Hinds was guilty of a conflict of interest.

It was a ludicrous claim, easily dismissed and widely ridiculed on social media. A range of organisations pay for interns to gain invaluable experience of political work: it is quite proper for the Catholic church to support a Catholic graduate to work alongside a Catholic MP. Damian Hinds followed protocol and declared the payment in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. So what is Humanists UK’s problem? Simply that Hinds is a Catholic. They can’t say so, of course, because that would breach the Equality Act.

The urgent concern of Humanists UK is that Damian Hinds might remove the 50% cap on faith school admissions, which currently prevents the Catholic church from opening any free schools. The cap removal was promised in the Conservative manifesto at the last election, but the pledge was broken soon after the Conservative government was re-elected and that was pretty much how opponents of faith education liked it. A consideration of the facts might help them to understand why lifting the cap could be a good thing.

The Catholic church would open between 30 and 40 new free schools if the cap was removed, creating between 15,000 and 20,000 new places. The growth of Catholic populations in some areas of the country, as a result of immigration, is considerable. A free school can only be opened where there is proven need and the pressure on places clearly demonstrates an urgent need. For the government this is much less about Catholic education than about not having to foot the bill for building new schools or finding 20,000 additional places in already overcrowded schools.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone, except those implacably opposed to faith education who are never going to send their children to these schools anyway. But because they don’t want them, they insist that nobody else should want them either. The arguments, of course, have to be political, because the Equality Act prevents them from opposition purely on the grounds of faith. So this is how their arguments run.

Faith schools create silos of segregation. The case of Northern Ireland is sometimes quoted in this argument. Except, of course, English society is not divided along sectarian lines and all schools are reflections of the communities they serve. Anyone accusing a village school serving farming communities, or a school teaching children from military families, of social segregation would be laughed at. Yet somehow it’s fine to level the accusation when it comes to faith.

Church schools proselytise and indoctrinate the next generation of society. Well, if that were true, churches would be full to overflowing every Sunday. Empty pews and falling attendance numbers in many churches show that young people are making up their own minds about faith and voting with their feet.

Faith schools unfairly take tax payers’ money. Parents of faith pay tax, too. In addition, their churches provide financial input to their schools which the government could simply not sustain from public funds.

Church schools bias their admissions in favour of middle class parents with sharp elbows. Read the Catholic Education Service’s recent census, which shows beyond dispute that Catholic schools serve some of the most disadvantaged children in society. Examine the figures for Church of England schools that faithfully serve the communities in which they are located regardless of social status. Of course there are parents who subvert admissions procedures in order to get their children into the school of their choice. But how is that any different from parents who move house in order to do exactly the same?

All these weary arguments will, no doubt, be given another media airing over the next few weeks. As a Christian, I find it encouraging that we have a religiously literate Secretary of State, in an age when rampant religious illiteracy roams the corridors of power at will. Instead of an Education Secretary who tells the church that it needs to get in line with modern attitudes on LGBT ideology, we hopefully have one who understands that churches’ teaching on marriage and identity is derived from the Bible, not public opinion.

The problem for opponents of Damian Hinds’ appointment is, of course, that they object to the presence of faith in the public square in any shape or form. An Education Secretary with faith raises the very real possibility that secular, liberal apologists will have to make space for the voice of faith to speak, too. Having worked so hard for so long to silence it, that must be a daunting prospect.

But here’s the most important point that the faith opposition lobby has to understand – they live in a democracy. The Department of Education loves faith schools. They said so this week in a statement: ‘We want to go further to ensure all young people have access to a good school place and we are keen for faith groups to play a key role in this. Many faith schools are high-performing and are more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted than non-faith schools.’ A third of all children in this country are educated in church schools, and many more who apply are unable to get a place.

So the government loves church schools and needs church money. Hundreds of thousands of parents (even those of no faith) love church schools because of the quality of holistic education that they offer.

It looks like opponents are tilting at windmills.