Professor Trevor Cooling discuses the government’s recent decision to remove the admissions cap for Catholic schools.

Theresa May has created a furore by revealing her intention to allow new grammar schools to be opened. Buried within this announcement was a concession to the Catholic Church; the lifting of the admissions cap. What this means is that instead of only 50% of places for over-subscribed schools being reserved for children from Catholic families, it will now be 100%. This resonates with the aspiration that the Catholic Church should provide a Catholic education for Catholic children. It means the Church will now open new free schools.

Opponents of what are called faith schools criticise this announcement as enhancing inappropriate discrimination in favour of Christians being selection which favours church-goers. They point to the abuses of such a system where aspirational parents suddenly become faithful church attenders for the period of time required to get their child into the good church school. Those involved in church schools recognise that this needs addressing. But to focus only on these challenges is to miss the real significance of this change of policy, namely the recognition that faith makes a difference in education. Parents want to send their children to church schools because they know ethos is hugely important. Church schools offer something distinctive which adds value to children’s education that many parents desire.

Another important point that often gets missed is that not all providers of church schools want to restrict entry to children of their religion. Indeed many Catholic schools welcome children from other backgrounds, pragmatically because there may not be enough Catholic children applying or ideologically because they view it as a Christian duty to welcome others. The Church of England has recently published a vision statement, Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good, which commits it to providing a Christian education for children from all backgrounds. The Chief Education Officer rejects the idea that Church of England schools are faith schools for children from Anglican families. A Christian ethos does not therefore necessarily imply selection.

Critics of church schools accuse them of being tribal, even sectarian and regularly cite the problems in Northern Ireland. No-one disagrees with the idea that sectarianism and extremism should be combatted in education. But to assume that that means refusing to acknowledge the significance of Christian faith in education and branding it as discrimination is to ignore one important fact. Religious faith is often a core motivator of love for one’s fellow human beings.

Professor Trevor Cooling is Director of the National Institute for Christian Education Research at Canterbury Christ Church University.