Doublethink: the Catholic Education Service, the Government, and the 50% cap

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it…

This is the definition of ‘doublethink’ in George Orwell’s 1984, the state of mind required to accept both the reforms introduced by the ‘Party’ and the ‘newspeak’ it uses to justify them.

The appeal of any dystopian fiction lies partly in the understanding that whilst the reality it presents may, at first glance, seem very different to our own, it is actually, on closer inspection, not so very different at all. Setting aside for a moment any other parallels that might exist between our world and the world of 1984, it becomes all too clear that ‘doublethink’ is alive and well in both worlds when examining the proposals to end the 50% cap on religious selection by free schools.

‘To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies…’

One of the principal justifications for this move is that the 50% cap ‘contravenes canon law’. This claim, perpetuated by the Catholic Education Service (CES) as its principal argument in favour of the cap’s lifting is patently false. So transparently false in fact, that it seems wrong merely to describe the Government as having been misled. Rather, the Government has allowed itself to be misled.

The following, taken from a Humanists UK briefing published late last year, makes that abundantly clear:

a)​ the vast majority of Catholic private schools in England (78 out of 101 according to a recent survey) do not select all their places with reference to religion, whether oversubscribed or not, and many openly celebrate the fact that they do not religiously select at all;

b)​ many Catholic state schools in Scotland do not religiously select their pupils

c)​ around the world allowing state-funded schools (Catholic or otherwise) to religiously discriminate in admissions is extremely rare. A recent OECD survey identified only the UK, Ireland, Israel and Estonia as permitting discrimination of this nature;

d)​ devastatingly, there are already Catholic state schools in England that do not select all their places on religion. For example, St Richard Reynolds Catholic Primary School in Richmond, St Paul’s Academy in Greenwich, and The De La Salle Academy in Liverpool all leave a third of their places open to non-Catholic children.

e)​ the Catholic International Education Office – the umbrella body for over 100 national catholic education organisations around the world, including the CES – stated in an official paper circulated at the Council of Europe in November 2016 that a ‘Catholic school is an inclusive school, founded in intercultural and interreligious dialogue. A non-discriminatory school, open to all, especially the poorest… [It] is anything but a communitarian school. It is open to all. In many European, American, Arab, African or Asian countries, the Catholic school welcomes mainly, or even exclusively, Muslim pupils, Buddhists, animists, or pupils of other religions, even those without religion. It must constantly promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue’.

Both the Government and the CES must now know these truths, and yet they persist with the notion that canon law has been breached.

‘…to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them…’

Speaking to the TES in October 2016, CES Director Paul Barber stated that ‘the move back to schools of 100 per cent one faith is dreadful’, adding that ‘to have children of other faiths in our schools’ is ‘a real blessing’. Bizarre, no?

How, you might ask, can the CES claim to be on the side of integration having lobbied to end the only policy in recent years that meaningfully requires schools to promote integration? How can the CES opine with one breath that fully segregated schools are to be avoided, and with the next breath call for a change that would make new fully segregated schools possible? How can the CES claim to welcome children from other faiths, while demanding that the Government gives it permission to turn away such children at the gate? This is doublethink in action.

The doublethink is present throughout the Government, too. Speaking on the steps of No. 10 when announcing this policy, Theresa May stated unequivocally that integration was still her aim, and that on removing the cap the Government would be consulting 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.’

The Prime Minister must know, of course, that religiously segregated schools are anathema to integration. Just as she must know that the best way to ensure mixing between pupils from different backgrounds is to actually have them mix. In fact, in August 2017 the Department for Education (DfE) helpfully published a report it commissioned into the benefits of mixing within schools. The study, which examined contact between pupils from White-British and Asian-British pupils at secondary schools in Oldham, found that:

  • ‘Attitudes were more positive and, as would be expected, mixing was more frequent in mixed than segregated schools’.
  • ‘Mixed schools do result in more social mixing between ethnic groups over time, and mixing is reliably associated with more positive views of the outgroup.’
  • ‘Attitudes of pupils who mix with other backgrounds were more positive compared to those who remain with their own ethnicities.’

This is a DfE-commissioned report! And while we’re on Government-commissioned reports, let’s not forget the Casey Review on integration. The two-year review concluded that ‘When children being educated in segregated schools are also growing up in an area where all of their neighbours are from the same ethnic and/or faith background, it vastly reduces opportunities for them to mix with others from different backgrounds. It deprives them of the benefits – individually and to society as a whole – that are known to derive from mixing with people from different backgrounds.’

Good. In that case the review must also have concluded that the Government’s plans to allow for more segregation in the education system are wrong-headed and potentially very damaging. No such luck. The review fails to recommend that the Government drop its plans to remove the 50% cap, perhaps reflecting the fact that the review was published by the Home Office, at a time when Theresa May was Home Secretary. Nevermind that this contradicted everything contained within the rest of the report as well as the personal view of its author Dame Louise Casey. Doublethink.

‘…to use logic against logic…’

I did not, above, explain why the CES deem the 50% cap to contravene canon law. Well, simply put the Catholic Church in England and Wales believes that if a Catholic school was to turn away Catholics, that would go against canon law. As Paul Barber says:

‘If we create a new school in an area where there’s a large demand from Catholic parents, and we’re saying from day one, “You can’t come to this school, because you’re Catholic,” the Catholic community would not understand that.’

What Paul Barber is trying to claim here is that what exists now is a quota not a cap. This is dead wrong. As we wrote on this website some months ago ‘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 per cent affords everyone who applies equal opportunity to gain access to the school, regardless of their religion or belief.’ In other words, the CES are stating that equal treatment for all = discrimination against Catholics. Again, doublethink.

Unfortunately, this is a fallacy that the Government has also subscribed to, meaning that a) the Government doesn’t understand a policy that it introduced itself and has been implemented for the last seven years, or b) the Government does understand its own policy and is deliberately misrepresenting it in order to justify the reform demanded by the CES. Either way, new logic is being used to undermine the old.

‘…to repudiate morality while laying claim to it…’

As we have seen, the claims made by the CES, and repeated by the Government, are untrue, contradictory, and illogical. But they are also immoral.

The CES is an organisation keen to talk up its contribution. It boasts of its long history of providing public education, and its website proudly states that ‘service to those who are amongst the most disadvantaged in our society has also always been central to the mission of Catholic education’.  

There is no doubt that for many of the teachers and other staff working in Catholic schools throughout England and Wales, this is a mission they carry out sincerely and often thanklessly. But they are let down direly by their superiors.

We have already observed that instead of welcoming the ‘blessing’ of having ‘children of other faiths in our schools’, the CES campaigns at a national level to keep those children out. We also know, from decades of research into the consequences of faith-based admission arrangements, that whenever religious selection is employed, children from poorer families are disproportionately turned away. In other words, the more religiously selective a school, the fewer poorer children it will admit.

The CES is well aware of this effect, as is the Government. And yet, under the guise of ‘mission’ and moral obligation, they persist with their attempt to increase religious selection in the education system. There is nothing moral about it.


All of this, and in far more detail, has been communicated to the Government. Ever since it made the announcement it has been inundated with evidence that entirely undermines its position and it has been overwhelmed by experts who demand a u-turn. For a time, whilst Justine Greening was Education Secretary, it seemed as though the Government was listening. But now, all that has been thrown into fresh doubt.

Towards the end of 1984, Winston asks the following question to himself: ‘what can you do against the lunatic… who gives your arguments fair hearing and then simply persists in the lunacy?’ If the Government presses on with these proposals, we might well ask the same question.

FSA team

The 50% cap on religious selection in free schools. Who’s for keeping it, and who’s for lifting it?

Opposed to the 50% cap

The Catholic Education Service for England and Wales has boycotted the free schools programme since 2010, refusing to set up any new free schools under the 50% cap.

Board of Deputies of British Jews, while noting the diversity of opinion within the Jewish community on this issue, has similarly stated that the 50% cap has prevented more Orthodox Jewish free schools from opening.…/Justine-Greening-letter-on-faith-cap-26072016-2.pdf

In favour of keeping the 50% cap

Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Ofsted: ‘Admission 100% on faith leads to increased levels of segregation within communities’. I am uncomfortable with anything that leads to increased segregation’

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan: ‘The government should not be bringing forward measures that make integration less likely.’

London’s Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement, Matthew Ryder QC: ‘The mayor and I share the view that it is imperative that every effort is made to encourage people of different backgrounds to mix as much as possible, and this is true in our schools as it is in workplaces and communities. We are therefore concerned that the Government’s proposals to remove the 50 per cent cap for religious free schools could represent a threat to the drive to pursue greater integration in our schools.’

Sutton Trust: Lifting the 50% cap is ‘likely to make [faith schools] even more unrepresentative of their local areas, reducing the number of good school places available to pupils across the socio-economic spectrum. The admissions process for faith schools should instead be opened up so that their admissions are fairer and begin to reflect their local population’.

Education Policy Institute: ‘If the objective of government policy is to increase social mobility, this policy intervention is unlikely to be effective.’

Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE): ‘Concerns remain over proposals to remove the 50% cap on the number of children admitted to schools on religious grounds in new and current faith schools, on the basis that it will entrench segregation and undermine community cohesion…The 50% cap on the number of children admitted to schools on religious grounds should remain in place for new and current faith schools.’

Kevin Courtney, General Secretary, National Union of Teachers: ‘If in our society we want children of different faiths to be educated together as part of building a good society, then all schools should be open to some children at least, of all faiths.’

Association of Teachers and Lecturers: ‘[The Education Policy Institute’s] report is timely, adding crucial and up-to-the-minute evidence to the wealth of existing research which challenges the government’s politically driven assertion that increasing the number of faith schools will increase social mobility.’

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson, Lord Storey: ‘the abolition of the 50% cap in our faith schools will mean that even more of our children will be separated and segregated by their religion’. He argued instead for ‘an open education system that does not segregate any pupil because of their ability or their faith—a system in which no child is left behind’.

Labour’s Shadow Education Spokesperson, Lord Watson: ‘[T]he Government want to facilitate a policy that will harden the divisions between children by ensuring that those not of a certain faith will be shut off from their neighbours and friends…Walls are dismantled by people coming together, not by keeping them apart. Further selection on the grounds of faith will lead to more pupils being discriminated against.’

Green Party: Party policy states that ‘there exists a range of inequality within our education system. This can often stem from unfair admissions processes, particularly in private schools, grammar schools, faith schools, free schools and academies. These processes often serve to work against the most disadvantaged young people in our society (such as those from poorer backgrounds or ethnic minorities). In order to provide an equal opportunity for all young people then admissions must be as balanced and fair as possible.’ Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas also wrote to the Prime Minister in November 2017 urging her ‘not to proceed with the proposal to abolish the limit which prevents faith-based free schools selecting more than 50% of pupils on religious grounds.’ and

Professor Ted Cantle, Institute for Community Cohesion Foundation:  ‘the evidence is unequivocal. Religious selection in school admissions is utterly deleterious for integration. And not just for religious integration, but for ethnic and socio-economic integration too…the more diverse our society becomes, the more integrated it needs to be, and if there is anyone around who is prepared to honestly say, with their hand on their heart, that single-faith, mono-cultural schools represent part of the solution rather than part of the problem, I sincerely hope they do not have the ear of the Government.’

British Muslims for Secular Democracy is a member of both the Fair Admissions Campaign and the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, which campaign against removing the 50% cap and for an end to religious selection in school admissions altogether.

Ekklesia, Christian think tank: ‘To take large amounts of taxpayers’ money and use it to deny some children entry to publicly-funded schools because they are from the ‘wrong’ belief background, offends natural justice in a plural society. Excluding pupils because of their faith background or lack of it, or putting parents into a position where they have to lie about their beliefs to get their children into a school with limited places: such things are not ‘Christian’, they are morally wrong.’

National Secular Society: ‘Facilitating more religious segregation in faith schools can only harm social cohesion.’

Rabbi Jonathan Romain, Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education: ‘At a time when social cohesion is needed more than ever, the Tories’ pledge to ghettoise religious schools is shocking…If the Government really values children knowing each other better, then why not have them in class together?’

Fair Admissions Campaign: ‘This move takes the education system in entirely the wrong direction, at a time when we should be encouraging more integration not less.’

Department for Education, January 2016: ‘the requirement for all oversubscribed faith free schools to make at least 50% of their places available to those of another or no faith helps to tackle segregation and ensures young people will experience the diversity of religious beliefs that make up modern Britain.’

67% Catholics responded to a May 2017 poll by stating their preference for new faith schools to continue operating under the current 50% cap  on religious selection. 80% of the population as a whole also prefer to keep the cap.

Humanists UK:Bizarrely, rather than celebrate the evident success of a policy it helped to introduce, the Government has chosen to massage the figures in a way that misleadingly presents the cap as a failure. This…champions the will of the religious lobby over the better interests of children.

‘The pretence of a religious objection appears to be an insidious political tactic to try to force through a policy change favourable to the Catholic Church but unpopular with the public and incredibly detrimental to integration and fairness in the education system.’

The consensus is clear. #keepthecap

Faith schools by stealth

Following the report on ‘faith schools by stealth’ published by investigative journalist Warwick Mansell last month, we reflect on the worrying rise of surreptitious religious influence in one of the UK’s largest academy chains and the wider problem of ‘faith ethos’ academies and mixed multi-academy trusts.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the proliferation of academies and free-schools has given rise to a do-as-you-like culture within the education system. There has been much literature written on the issue of the autonomy enjoyed by academies and free schools, but in short, these types of school have tended to use the autonomy afforded to them as an excuse for a lack of transparency, something which regrettably has gone largely unchallenged. This is seen no more clearly than in the arrangements for ‘faith ethos’ academies – both unfortunate by-products of academisation.

The problem with ‘faith ethos’ academies is that, although they are not legally registered as having a religious character, they are nonetheless run by an organisation with a religious ethos. These organisations can then use their religious character to influence and exert control over aspects of the governance, employment, and curriculum policies of the school.

Mansell, like Humanists UK before him, draws attention to one such chain of ‘faith ethos academies’, Oasis. Despite the organisation having a clear Christian ethos, the academies are not formally registered with the Department for Education (DfE) as religious schools. Official documents reveal that Oasis is:

‘motivated by the life, message and example of Christ’.

One ex-Oasis school governor, described the organisation as a ‘faith school by stealth’, whereby he was expected to ‘police the ‘Christian values’ of Oasis, making sure they were ‘permeating through the school’.

This type of back-door religious influence is absolutely unacceptable, and it raises some serious concerns around democracy and freedom of choice. It is a testament to just how permissive our education system has become to religious influence, and has only been made possible through academisation.

Schools should be obliged by the DfE to provide an accurate description of their ethos, religious or otherwise, providing parents and guardians with the information needed to make an informed decision on what type of school they would like their child to be educated in. To not provide parents with accurate information on a school’s religious ethos is tantamount to infringing on their freedom of choice. That’s not to mention that a third of state-funded schools are already faith schools – troubling enough without organisations like Oasis, the third-largest academy sponsor in the UK, operating clandestine religious schools.

Unfortunately, organisations like Oasis are not the only worry when it comes to ‘faith ethos’ academies. Mixed multi-academy trusts (MATs) also have very dubious policies around their religious character and influence in governance, employment, and the curriculum.

Mixed MATs are the result of a less than harmonious union between schools with no religious character and religious schools. The rules of the union can assign more than half (and at least 25%) of trustee control to the religious organisation involved in running the religious school (ordinarily a diocese), regardless of whether the number of schools with no religious character is greater than those with a religious character. Ridiculous, right? This means the schools with no religious character can effectively become run by a religious organisation.

‘Faith schools by stealth’ are being imposed on whole communities, parents, and young people without their informed consent, and remarkably this is breaking no laws. The DfE needs to urgently review its current educational policies. Parents and young people deserve transparency and openness when choosing a school and this back-door religious influence cannot continue to go unchecked.

FSA staff