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Francis Davis is Professor of Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham.

Damian Hinds satisfied neither humanists nor Catholics last week – at least if those who speak for them, or claim to, is anything to go by.  On the one hand, Andrew Copson, the Chief Executive Office of the British Humanist Association, lamented his frustration that the Education Secretary has opened the door to new-voluntary aided faith schools. On the other, Malcolm McMahon, the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool and Chairman of the national Catholic Education Service, condemned the government for “breaching its manifesto promise to lift the faith cap on places in new free schools” and so “failing England’s six million Catholics”.

But poised between these two opposing forces, Hinds could be forgiven for thinking he had struck the correct balance – which he has. Indeed, he has shone a light on gaps in the Government’s own approach to community cohesion and the potential for educational innovation.

The Education Secretary has explained his decision to maintain the ‘faith cap’ for new free schools by referring back to the Government’s recently-published Green paper on Integrated Communities.  Citing an independent review by Louise Casey, it referred to “a worrying number of communities, divided along race, faith or socio-economic lines”. And it proposed various means of halting any tendency among some of these communities to avoid contact with others, setting out examples of how insularity can be curbed.

However, there is at least one problem with the Green Paper.  It committed to a single approach to all these communities from government, but failed to cite a single example of the problem from Catholic institutional behaviours and practice.

In the case of Catholic schools, this was a notable omission.  They are more than twice as likely as the national norm to have pupils from BME backgrounds. For example, in the 170 schools overseen by the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark alone, a full 66 per cent of all pupils are from such backgrounds. Nearly 10,000 of those students receive the pupil premium.  In the Archdiocese of Westminster next door, the social make-up is not very different, and networks of schools in both dioceses reach into suburban and rural areas. This means that pupils in the two archdiocese’s schools are linked across neighbourhoods and social networks in ways that other inner city schools may not be – thus adding value to the close to a billion pounds the Education Department provides for their running costs.

Even the most pioneering groups of academies, such as Ark, cannot demonstrate that 98 per cent of their schools have well-led status on the scale and in the manner of those supported by the Archdiocese of Southwark, and in social terrain as diverse as, for example, its schools in Lewisham, Lambeth, Croydon, Medway, Maidstone, Tunbridge Wells, and Thanet.

Beyond London, Church schools train and sustain over 30,000 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds outside the classroom, and they increasingly model collaboration as part of this work. I recently chaired the Mayor of the West Midlands’ faith and cohesion summit, and among hundreds present were Anglicans, supporting all the region’s diverse communities in their educational provision. In a large girls’ Catholic School in Southampton, I have seen Muslim cohorts of students as large and lively as any active Christian or other group.  In a primary school next door, co-teaching for Polish pupils complements classroom provision.  Episcopal and especially Catholic diocesan schools are beacons of the practice of integration. From an evidence-based perspective, they are perhaps currently the most striking vehicles for successful integration and cohesion.

By contrast, the Government has recently been seeking to manage intense conflicts within Hindu and Sikh organisations, and between those communities and others. A number of Hindu groups claim that Muslims are the number one grooming threat to their children. And there is major discord between various Sikh centres on political and generational as well as theological grounds, leading to uneasy competition.

So it may be that Hinds was unwilling to say publicly that lifting the 50 per cent faith cap for the tiny number of areas reportedly wanting Catholic free schools risked a flow of applications from organisations focused on ethnic and religious purity and political grievances – and concentrated more intensely in certain areas, too.

The Education Secretary will have noticed that a majority of the two thousand or so Catholic schools have resisted academicisation. Nearly 75 per cent have retained voluntary-aided status, thus keeping close collaboration with the Education Department and local authorities. To invest effectively in the potential of these schools, it makes sense, as he has indicated, to support local authorities, and this the full variety of voluntary aided schools.

But the new resources that he has found to invest should not just fund places. In recognising the success of the diocesan-sponsored voluntary aided school model, both the Education Department and the Catholic Church should seek to innovate.

Globally, the churches have trail-blazed models of educational intervention, whatever the size of their local congregations may be. Church schools in Karachi are the gold standard of service to all in a society where minorities are at legal risk. Across the United States, Cristo Rey social enterprise schools have succeeded in reducing truancy, and making scarce resources in poor areas go further. In Latin America, people of faith willingly gift their time at less than market rates.

What is common to all the best Church faith schools is their ability to cross divides of class and ethnicity, geography and trade, background and outcomes by their mobilisation of diverse and complementary networks of volunteers and allies. The same should be expected here. With its vast array of global best practice, plus UK private and maintained schools, and academies and out-of-school settings, the Catholic Church has not only rights to claim for its own members but a duty to innovate to help others. Its recent over-emphasis on a few potential free schools, and a late enthusiasm for academies, provides no absolution from those responsibilities.

When the immediate storm over his proposals has subsided, Hinds’ new direction will be clear. He has created a level-playing field to enhance choice for students and providers, and has drawn on current best practice to set it up. He has raised the bar for all those involved: the Education and Housing departments will need to reach more for real evidence, and work harder at collaboration with the Catholic community, not just their favourite departmental visitors. British Humanists will have to come to terms with the same evidence. Local government should respond creatively. The Archbishop of Liverpool must urge some dioceses to be more create and effective . The Secretary of State may have hit exactly the right balance. No wonder so many touched by his decison are furious – for they all now have homework to do.

16 comments for: Francis Davis: Why Hinds’ faith schools cap decision was right

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