BY ED WEST
A LARGE rise in the number of late baptisms is being attributed to parents trying to get their children into oversubscribed Catholic schools.
Figures released last week by the Pastoral Research Centre Trust showed that up to a third of baptisms into the Church were of children between one and 13, compared to just one in 20 in 1958.
During this period the number of late baptisms increased from 6,925 a year to 20,141, during a period of overall rapid decline in Church activity. In the same period the number of cradle baptisms fell from 108,996 to 42,425 a year.
Researcher Tony Spencer said the increase in late baptisms was fuelled by lapsed Catholics wanting to get their children into Catholic schools. which require that the parents be church-going Catholics and the child baptised.
Mr Spencer said: "It is a great compliment from the community at large to the quality of the Catholic school system." However, he suggested that a key factor was the increase in funding to Catholic schools since the 1959 Education Act.
"By the time you reached the 1970s. Catholic schools were no longer impoverished and they were becoming good, very good and excellent schools," he said. "Because of that, the demand for places increased not only from Catholics but from the rest of the community."
The findings came three days after the Government hinted at an end to the expansion of religious schools, amid fears that it would increase segregation in Muslim parts of the country.
Questioned about new laws that require schools to "promote social cohesion", Children. Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls told MPs: "It is not the policy of the Government nor my department to expand the number of faith schools. We're not leading a drive for more faith schools."
Catholic schools also came under renewed attack from MPs and the National Secular Society (NSS).
Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service, said the Church should still be reassured by the statistics, even though "there may well be some who, as the baby grows up, give more careful consideration to the question of education and decide that they do want their child to be baptised and have the best possible opportunity to attend a Catholic school".
She said: That the child is brought into the Church and the family's bond with the Church strengthened can only be a good thing, irrespective of whether the child does eventually have the benefit of attending a Catholic school."
Peter Stanford, former editor of The Catholic Herald and a parent and governor at a Catholic school, said that parents trying to fiddle the system were deluded. He said: "If you want to get your kid into a good Catholic school and you want to be cheat, the child has to first to be baptised within the first year.'
Eric Hester, a former headmaster at a Catholic comprehensive in Cheshire, said: "There's nothing underhand. Some parents used to put a false address down so their child could get in; having your child baptised, even if the main motive is school, is not a cheat, it's quite a big step. There's nothing sinister in this. And remember, priests are very conscientious, they will postpone it if they think the parents aren't ready. But the NSS and the government should ask themselves the question: why are Catholic schools so popular? It is yet another sign of the success of Catholic schools. The problem is success; because they are so popular they need to be strict with entrance, and because of that people are envious. Why don't they run a school for atheists or secularists? It's a free country. Because no parents would send their kids there. People opt for Catholic schools because of the moral values they instil."
But Mr Spencer suggested the overall picture was grim for the Church. "During the past decade of massive Catholic immigration from Eastern Europe our own independent estimates of the size of the baptised Catholic population having at least a minimal involvement with the Church marrying with Catholic rites, baptising their children and burying their dead show that instead of rising rapidly it has fallen by 530,000 in the eight years from January 1997 to December 2004.
Using the parish clergy's figures, the number of Catholics married with the rites of the Church fell from 19.7 per thousand Catholic population in 1958 to 3.5 per thousand in 2005. Catholic marriage is dying." He also said that the reorganisation of the Catholic statistics system in 2000 was "a disaster", and that figures produced since then "are simply not credible, arising from defective editing of the returns sent in by parishes, and failures in tabulation".
School Board: Page9 Mary Kenny: Page 10