As secular campaigners intensify their vocal opposition to faith schools, Andrew Cole charts the battle his Catholic voluntary aided school faced to open in west London.

Ever since Theresa May announced plans to scrap the 50 per cent admissions cap for new faith free schools, secular campaigners have been unable to hide their disdain. Piece after piece of questionable research has been produced railing against the removal of the cap, a policy that many believe failed in its key objective of creating diversity.

Parents are the principal educators of their children and they make careful decisions about the sort of education they want for them. Within reason, the state is right to try to provide different sorts of schools to match different parents’ needs, especially in a multicultural, multi-faith society such as ours.

Anti-faith school campaigners appear to confuse conformity with equality and ignore the opinions of the hundreds of thousands of parents who have children at, or want to send their children to, schools with a religious character. Specifically, in the Catholic context, secular campaigners fail
to understand the obligation Catholic parents are under to give their children a Catholic education, a requirement set out in canon law.

Anti-faith school campaigners confuse conformity with equality

None of the major secularist or humanist campaign organisations run schools, yet they believe they have a right to dictate how schools should be managed. On the other hand, the mainstream Christian churches have been running schools successfully for centuries, and are the largest provider of education in England and Wales.

For those involved in Catholic schools, educating young people has always been more important than fighting ideological battles over faith-based education. And it is precisely because we have this focus on education and the formation of the whole person, that our schools are so successful.

When the Diocese of Westminster was approached in 2011 by Richmond council to consider opening a new school to meet demand from Catholic parents and others, our natural response was “yes, let’s get this done”.  What followed was an anti-Catholic school campaign. Supported by The British Humanist Association (BHA), the Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign (RISC) was formed with the aim of blocking our school.

The usual arguments were put forward; Catholic schools are exclusive, discriminatory, and promote segregation; arguments that the most basic examination would show to be unfounded. Catholic schools are the most disproportionately ethnically diverse in the country, educate more pupils from the poorest backgrounds than the national average and, according to Ofsted, are much more likely to make a good or outstanding contribution to their local communities.

In fact, according to the last Catholic schools’ census almost a third of pupils in Catholic schools are not Catholic and, of this group, more than a fifth are of no faith at all.

According to the last Catholic schools’ census almost a third of pupils in Catholic schools are not Catholic

What’s more, the Catholic church saves the taxpayer millions of pounds each year through the maintenance and improvement of buildings and provision of land. And, in the case of St Richard Reynolds, virtually all building costs are met by the church, parents and charities who believe in faith-based education.

Despite this, countless hours of teachers’ and governors’ time was taken up dealing with the various objections thrown at us; it even resulted in the legality of the school being challenged in a November 2012 judicial review in the High Court brought by the BHA and RISC, and a complaint to the Democratic Monitoring Office about my right to attend a council scrutiny meeting.

All this effort was time taken away from what we were passionate about – opening a good school. However, the campaign did strengthen our resolve to succeed and drew together those who believe that church schools have an important place in the educational landscape.

Thankfully the High Court found in our favour and St Richard Reynolds opened in 2013 – and we have recently been judged by Ofsted as an outstanding school in every category. When I look back on the battle we had and I see the school as it is today, I know it was worth the fight.


Andrew Cole is chair of governors at St Richards Reynolds catholic college in Richmond upon Thames

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