BY MARK GREAVES
THE BISHOP in charge of Catholic education has backed a flagship Tory reform that would make it easier for parents to set up their own state schools.
Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, chairman of the bishops’ Department of Catholic Education and Formation, said the idea of Swedish-style “free schools” replicates exactly how Catholic schools were founded in the 19th century.
He said he wanted to begin talks with the Conservatives about it and said that the Church had “a lot of experience to offer”.
His comments follow a private meeting between Tory leader David Cameron and Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster which was said to be “very positive and friendly”.
The bishop said: “[The free schools idea] interests me greatly because of course that was exactly how Catholic schools were founded – by local communities getting together, pooling their resources. Many Catholic primary schools were started in the front room of the presbytery by parents with help from the local convent.” Bishop McMahon, a Dominican who took over as head of education last year, said he saw the reform as an “opportunity” for the Church.
He said: “I would like to find out more about it and get into discussion with them [the Conservatives] about this.” Under Tory plans, parents, charities and other not-for-profit groups could apply directly to the Government to set up schools that would be independent from local authorities.
They would receive funding based on pupil numbers and, if relatively small, could operate in offices or church halls and not just tailor-made school buildings. A similar system was introduced in Sweden in 1992 and now a fifth of Sweden’s pupils attend a free school.
Bishop McMahon said that the reform could help strengthen communities by encouraging parents to become more involved in their schools.
He said: “The traditional triangle of home, school and parish has come under severe strain in recent years. I think if there is more local involvement with school and with Church at the centre of that then it will give support not just to pupils but to parents and families as well. I see it as a total entity with the Church, the school and the home working in close cooperation.
“That’s why I see this as an opportunity and not something to be frightened of. So much of human formation takes place within not just the family but within the local community and I would like to see how that can be emphasised and encouraged. If you like it’s a little bit anti-globalisation, more localisation.” Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, said he was “absolutely delighted” that Bishop McMahon wanted to meet.
“I’ll be in touch to arrange to meet at the earliest opportunity,” he said. “I’m a huge admirer of the contribution that the Catholic Church has made to education in Britain. I hope our legislative changes will help the Church to establish schools that will be popular with parents and will continue the tradition of educational excellence that the Church has already established.” About 300 groups of parents and teachers have already expressed an interest in starting their own schools, according to the Continued on Page 2
Church warms to Conservative education policy
Continued from Page 1 New Schools Network charity. Five of these groups are Catholics who want to set up schools with a Catholic ethos.
Francis Davis, public policy expert and Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, said last year that the Tory reform would make it easier for energetic new movements in the Church to set up schools. He said it could lead to schools run by Opus Dei, the Focolare movement or Catholic charismatics.
“We could refresh the Catholic system in such a way that the new movements in the Church and the parts that are full of zeal and enthusiasm might be able to come together and look at this,” he said. “A particular charism in the Church might be able to find legs in a way that they couldn’t at the moment.” Toby Young, a journalist who is leading efforts to set up a free school in Acton, west London, said it would be “fantastic” if the Church could share its expertise with parents wanting to set up schools.
He said dioceses would be “invaluable” co-sponsors for parents seeking to sponsor a new academy school. They could offer church halls to smaller schools, he said, or help other groups of parents find suitable school buildings.
“There’s a real opportunity for what has been the most consistently successful part of the school sector to help teach people wanting to set up free schools how to do it. [Catholic schools] achieve extraordinary results year after year and provide enormous opportunities to non-middle-class children. If they could show us how it’s done that would be fantastic.” Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said the Conservatives could not afford to pay for hundreds of new schools without making drastic cuts elsewhere.
He said: “The Tories need to come clean with parents about what their plans really mean. Michael Gove can only pay for his Swedish schools experiment by cutting billions from the budgets of existing schools and slashing our school rebuilding programme.
“Parents want action to raise standards in every school and to turn round underperforming schools. We are doing that through National Challenge and our academies programme.” Meanwhile, it emerged this week that more than 30 faith schools have been ordered to change their admissions code so they cannot pick out the most religious pupils.
Eight Catholic schools in Newham, east London, were ordered to change their admissions code after asking parents and children to meet a priest for a reference.
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