No room at the inn: the exclusive approach of the CES to its schools knows no bounds

“Rather than defending this appalling record of disproportionately turning away poorer children at the gate, wouldn’t the Archbishop be better off doing something about it?”

This morning (2 May 2017), the Education Guardian published a probing (and excellent) interview by Peter Wilby with Malcolm McMahon, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool and chair of the Catholic Education Service (CES). The Archbishop’s views on the role and ethos of the CES’ schools should trouble us all. Some examples.

Wilby rightly notes that the CES’ model approach to teaching relationships and sex education to children contains no mention of ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ at any stage, and when asked whether or not Catholic schools teach about gay relationships, the Archbishop limply replies that ‘Christian teaching “is at the centre of our schools”’. So far, so worrying. And it doesn’t get any better.

Asked if some pupils at Catholic schools have same-sex parents, the Archbishop gives the quite remarkable response: ‘Why would same-sex parents want to send their children to a Catholic school?’ Well, if the views of the Archbishop are the same as those espoused by his schools, why indeed.

This response may not be that surprising, but it is no less scandalous for it. This is a man responsible for overseeing the education of more than 800,000 children, and he is openly admitting that the 2,000 publicly funded schools in his charge are not necessarily appropriate for same-sex parents and their children. The Archbishop claims that Catholic schools would nonetheless treat ‘them’ with respect, but one wonders how much respect these schools can really be showing to people whose existence is ignored in everyday teaching or whose sexuality is described as sinful.

Moving on, the Archbishop appeared more than a little defensive when asked about the record of Catholic schools on serving the most needy in their communities. After McMahon misleadingly claimed that ‘the proportion of pupils in Catholic schools from deprived areas…[is] above average’, Wilby puts it to him that given the location of many Catholic schools in poor urban areas, they should actually be admitting far more poorer pupils than they do. The Archbishop responds: ‘You do this for a living, do you? You ask questions based on inaccurate information?’ A nerve struck.

Far from being ‘based on inaccurate information’, Wilby’s questioning is precisely right. The evidence consistently reveals that Catholic schools admit far fewer poor children than they should given their areas. For instance, research conducted by the Fair Admissions Campaign using official government data found that Catholic schools admit a staggering 28% fewer children eligible for Free School Meals than they should given their local areas, while the Sutton Trust reported earlier this year that ‘faith’ schools (with Catholic schools among the worst offenders) are ‘three times as socially selective compared to their catchment area than non-faith schools’.

And we must be careful not to get sucked in by the CES’ consistently misleading language on this. As Wilby suggests, whilst Catholic schools are more likely to be situated in more deprived areas, this is not the same thing as being more likely to admit deprived pupils. In fact, analysis clearly shows that Catholic schools are even more likely to be in deprived areas than their pupils are. Situated in deprived areas they may be, but welcoming of deprived families they are not.

Rather than defending this appalling record of disproportionately turning away poorer children at the gate, not to mention children from certain ethnic minorities, wouldn’t the Archbishop be better off doing something about it? He doesn’t seem to think so.

Nor, indeed, is he ready to give up on the transparently false assertion that ‘by canon law, schools are forbidden to turn away Catholic parents in favour of non-Catholics’. This was the claim that ultimately led the Government to announce that it will be dropping the 50% cap on religious selection and no longer requiring new religious schools to keep at least half of their places open to all local children, irrespective of religion or belief. No matter that the CES’ canon-law claim has absolutely no basis in fact (see the British Humanist Association’s excellent briefing on this for details). And no matter that the 50% cap was a demonstrable success, significantly boosting both integration and the access of local families to their local schools, contrary to the Government’s own false assertions. 

Wilby’s parting advice in his article is that if one is to find themselves speaking with the Archbishop, ‘it’s perhaps best to avoid the subject of who is allowed to go to Catholic schools, or what goes on behind their walls.’  Unfortunately, this is advice that the Government already seem to be acting upon.

FSA team

We have a cap, not a quota, on religious selection

80Time and time again in the debate over the proposed scrapping of the 50 percent limit on religious selection by new state-funded religious schools, one claim has been repeated more than any other by proponents of the initiative that is simply not true.

It’s seen again in a recent piece by Harry Phibbs, for Conservative Home, when he writes:

Thus far new free schools have only been allowed to take a maximum of 50 per cent of pupils on the basis of their faith. Thus for instance if you were to open a new Roman Catholic school, and it was oversubscribed, only half of the pupils could be admitted on the basis of their faith. Once that quota is full, it is a legal requirement to turn away Roman Catholic children for simply being Roman Catholic.

That is quite absurd. So a “free” school does not have freedom over admissions.  A “faith” school is obliged to turn away children who follow its faith to make way for those who don’t. What meaning do these words have?

This is simply not true. We do not have a quota system, we have a cap system.

The difference is this: after a school has taken its 50 percent of pupils on the basis of faith, it then has to take the second 50 percent ‘without reference to faith’. But that is not the same as saying that it cannot take any more pupils of that faith. Instead, the second 50 percent affords everyone who applies equal opportunity to gain access to the school, regardless of their religion or belief.

It is almost certain that, for a Catholic school, a high proportion of applicants will be Catholics, and so a proportion of this second 50 percent will still be Catholics too. So actually the 50 percent cap is somewhat weaker than a 50 percent quota would be.

On top of that, over the years faith groups have found some clever, lawful, ways to manipulate the system and try and maximise their proportion within the faith, without breaking the 50 percent rule. One example is that if they are a minority faith school in a community with a high proportion of people of the faith, they might take their open 50 percent before their religious 50 percent, and use distance as the underlying tie-breaker. As the second 50 percent will be drawn from further afield than the first, this way they can be all but guaranteed to have a very high proportion of people of the faith amongst the open as well as the religious 50 percent.

Another way is to take all siblings under the open 50 percent, even if the older siblings already at the school gained entry under religious selection criteria themselves.

This is not to say the cap is worthless – in fact it’s been highly effective in reducing ethnic segregation particularly among Christian schools. It just illustrates that it doesn’t at all work in the hard way Mr Phibbs suggests.


The Government, itself, makes the same fallacy when it writes that ‘creates a barrier to setting up new schools because the Catholic Church believes their own rules mean they cannot prioritise admission of non-Catholic pupils.’ But once again, this isn’t what is happening. They are not being asked to prioritise non-Catholic families, just give them equal access.

We’ve also tried taking this up directly with Catholic lobbyists and others who have been perpetuating this confusion between cap and quota. Generally they have accepted the point, but argued that it is a subtlety parents wouldn’t understand.

So the Government blames the Catholic Church, and the Church blames the parents. But most Catholics, or indeed those of any religion or belief, don’t want religious selection at all. And on top of that, the ‘rules’ aspect of the claim is highly dubious: the CES’s parent body has said it does not support religious selection; most Catholic schools in other countries don’t religiously select; and most Catholic private schools in this country don’t either.

So why are we in this mess?

FSA team

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My experience of injustice and discrimination at a state-funded Catholic school

“The school’s SRE policy states that it ‘cannot approve of homosexual genital acts’ and that ‘a homosexual partnership and a heterosexual marriage can never be equated’. This is the policy you will find on its website today, the policy of a state-funded school in England in 2016.”

Front page from 2013 on the news that schools were still operating Section 28-type policies

It may have been outlawed some time ago, thrust officially into the history books by a skin-of-its-teeth vote in Parliament, but the spirit of Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 – the prohibition on promoting the ‘acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ in schools – is still very much alive in the education system of our country. Many schools are still though to maintain such policies, often at the behest of Diocesan authorities.

The British Humanist Association exposed some such schools in a report from 2013. Reassuringly, many schools took this call to action seriously, and decided to act upon the misinformation given in these policies.

The school I left earlier this year, Bishop Challoner Catholic Secondary School in Basingstoke, has not followed the good example set by such schools. The Education for Personal Relationships Policy states that it ‘cannot approve of homosexual genital acts’, a derogatory, and frankly disgraceful term to use in describing people’s ‘personal relationships’, which does nothing to instil any confidence in pupils and parents that the Church does in fact ‘recognise the dignity of all people’ or ‘affirm the homosexual as a person’, as the same policy claims. The school then goes on to dictate its opinion on same-sex marriage, asserting incorrectly that ‘English law’ reflects the Church’s opinion that ‘a homosexual partnership and a heterosexual marriage can never be equated’. This is the policy you will find on its website today, the policy of a state-funded school in England in 2016.

“Education, at its best, brings freedom, rights, and informed discourse, but our children are being let down by an education system which provides undue privileges to religious groups.”

It is important, I believe, to make sure that schools like Bishop Challoner are exposed to the public for encouraging a view of the law that is neither accurate nor tolerant.

I wrote to the school in my penultimate year regarding this policy, and it was pointed out that the document was immutable and had to reflect Diocesan guidance, save for the assertions on English law, which were to be duly amended, I was told. To date, no action has taken place with regard to this policy.

Of course, it is one thing to write about something, and another entirely to do it. When the Education for Personal Relationships day did come, it fell short of the condemnation that the policy would imply, but still failed to give even a fleeting mention to LGBT relationships. A separate day was also organised in which pupils could ask questions to married couples and receive answers about any aspect of married life, a well-meaning endeavour which, if properly co-ordinated, could have been an excellent day for learning. This disappointed severely. The couples were homogenous in that they were all Christians. This clearly does not represent the majority of British people and their feelings towards marriage.

“Why should any religion enjoy the privilege of using taxpayers’ money to propagate their faith?”

Further examples of discriminatory positions taken by the school included some of my peers being berated by a former head teacher for not wishing to lead a class in prayer. It is perhaps reasonable, if prayer really must take place, to ensure that it is done with no disruptions. However, the suggestion  that by not wishing to partake in the religious activities of the school a pupil is disrespecting the Catholic faith, contradicts the notion of religious freedom completely.

I too found myself on the receiving end of this failure to respect freedom of thought and freedom of belief. My parents’ request to opt me out of Mass was denied, despite the fact the schools are legally obliged to grant such requests without question.


In addition to the schools’ administrative actions, I felt ostracised by the school’s religious selectivity. In fact, the 2015 diocesan report says that ‘The majority of students are Catholic, with approximately 17% of students from other Christian denominations’.  It does not even mention non-Christians, meaning that I fell into the ‘other Christian’ category, as was attested to by my school file. It lists my religion as ‘Christian’. Who asked me? I certainly didn’t tell them this. It’s as if they are treating religion like it’s some heritable or genetic trait. It isn’t, of course.

Consider, for a moment, the Liberal Democrat, Labour, or Conservative parties. The very implication that they would establish their own schools to propagate their own moral values or beliefs would rightly be met with contempt. Such a privilege would be ridiculous. Why should any religion enjoy the privilege of using taxpayers’ money to propagate their faith? And is it right that they’re able to do so to children who are either too young to make up their minds for themselves, or are old enough to have struck upon their own set of beliefs which may not accord with the religious ethos of the school to which their parents send them? Why is religion so different to political ideology when it comes to the passionate indifference our education system affords to the latter?

“I too found myself on the receiving end of this failure to respect freedom of thought and freedom of belief”

I am lucky that my critical approach to ideas was so firmly cemented in my mind by the time I got to Secondary School, that I did not struggle to discern the dogma of the Church from the facts. Many of my peers were not so lucky. The experience, with them from school starting age, will completely privilege the Church above reason in their minds, and to them, the special rights afforded to religious groups in this country will seem just, and reasonable.

Regrettably, my examples are anecdotal. There is no written evidence of any discriminative behaviour taking place at the school nor any record as to the response to my parents’ request to opt me out of Mass (which disappointingly was withdrawn on denial). It is therefore imperative that students who have had similar experiences to me to document the injustices that take place in these schools, and to hold those responsible for perpetrating them to account. Now that the Government has announced that a great many more Catholic schools are set to open, this is more important than it has ever been.