“We will replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools, instead requiring new faith schools to prove that parents of other faiths and none would be prepared to send their children to that school.”
So declared the Conservative Manifesto, which was no surprise. Theresa May had explained the reasoning behind the proposal in a major speech on schools last September.
“Britain has a long history of faith schools delivering outstanding education. They already account for around a third of all mainstream schools in England. They are popular with parents and significantly more likely than other schools to be rated by Ofsted as Good or Outstanding.
I believe we should confidently promote them and the role they play in a diverse school system.
Yet for Catholic schools in particular there are barriers in their way. When a faith-designated Free School is oversubscribed, it must limit the number of pupils it selects on the basis of faith to 50 per cent.
The intention is to improve the diversity of the school’s intake but in practice it has little impact on many Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools because they tend not to appeal to parents of other faiths.
So despite the best intentions, the rule is failing in its objective to promote integration. But it does prevent new Catholic schools opening, because the Catholic Church believes it contravenes its own rules for a Catholic Bishop not to prioritise the admission of Catholic pupils.
This is especially frustrating because existing Catholic schools are more ethnically diverse than other faith schools, more likely to be located in deprived communities, more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted, and there is growing demand for them.
So we will remove this 50 per cent rule to allow the growth in capacity that Catholic schools can offer. Instead we will consult on a new set of much more effective requirements to ensure that faith schools are properly inclusive and make sure their pupils mix with children of other faiths and backgrounds.”
Yet we read yesterday that the Government may drop the plan. Elsewhere, we also read that it may allow people to change their gender legally without a doctor’s diagnosis.
In other words, Ministers may permit continued discrimination, as they see it, against the rights of Catholic children while barring continued discrimination, as they see it, against the rights of transgendered people.
This site passes no comment this morning on the merits of either case, other than to point out that the juxtaposition confirmed the muddle that the Conservative Party has got itself into about equalities policy. A glance back at history helps to explain why.
Two of the three most prominent anti-discrimination measures were promoted by Labour governments (the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act), and the third promoted by a Conservative one (the Disability Discrimination Act. Read Andrew Gimson’s interview with William Hague, who masterminded the measure, here).
These were then rolled, together with other anti-discrimination laws, into the Equalities Act of 2006 (updated by another equalities act in 2010). The aim of the law was no longer merely to prevent discrimination; it became to promote equality. This was signalled by the rolling together of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission into the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Same-sex marriage then followed under the Cameron Government.
It is more than fair to say that the impetus for equalities policy (rather than mere anti-discrimination measures) has come mostly from the Left. Conservative responses have tended to divide into denouncing each proposal as politically correct nonsense, or embracing them with an enthusiastic “me, too”-ism. Neither approach has been distinguished by intellectual rigour.
What sort of equality does the Conservative Party support? Equality before the law? Equality of opportunity? Equality of outcome? An equality of esteem? A snappy summary would be: answer has come there none. Which should it favour?
What does it believe should happen when “protected characteristics” clash? These were defined under the 2010 Act as age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. But there is no “hierarchy of rights”: politicians ducked establishing one, and threw the whole business into the lap of the courts.
And what does it think about having a select committee in place to cover Women and Equalities…while another finds in an enquiry that the most-underperforming group in schools is British boys (and white ones at that)?
According to Lord Ashcroft’s survey of 14,000 people on election day, 67 per cent of 18-24 years olds voted Labour, with that total falling only to 58 per cent among 24-35 year olds. There is broad agreement across the Conservative family that one of the reasons for this Tory failure is that, for too long, the Party has failed to make the case for conservatism. And conservatism cannot have intellectual no-go areas. Equalities policy is part of the territory it must explore and occupy.
Party Conference takes place in scarcely more than two months. Theresa May and other Ministers need to spell out at it what they plan to do put that case to a new generation of young people. They should, for example, encourage the setting up of a modern equivalent of Swinton College.
Someone needs to take charge of the push. The best-qualified and most senior Minister is Michael Gove, but he is busy elsewhere. Perhaps Jesse Norman could do it. The wise old owls of the Conservative Parliamentary Party will murmur that the whole business is best avoided. Maybe. But let them not complain if they’re saddled in due course with, say, a policy on transgendered people that they don’t particularly care for.