Page 1, 27th October 2006

27th October 2006
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Page 1, 27th October 2006 — Three days to save our Catholic schools
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Locations: Birmingham, Liverpool, Surrey

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Three days to save our Catholic schools

Time is running out to defeat the Education Secretary's plan to force Church schools to

nee et a 25 eer. cent I uota of non-Catholics.

But if we act immediately we can stop

BY CHRISTINA FARRELL

CATHOLIC state schools will face one of the biggest crises in their history if proposals currently before the House of Lords are approved next week.

Last-gasp amendments to the Educeticei and Inspections Bill threaten to impose a 25 per cent quota of non-Catholic pupils on Catholic schools, changing forever their unique status and ethos. The matter is scheduled for debate in the House of Lords on Monday.

The Catholic Union of Great Britain, which represents Catholic interests in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, has issued an urgent plea to clergy, the laity and religious to lobby members of Parliament and prevent the amendments from becoming law.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has described the imposition of a quota as "unacceptable". And in an unprecedented move, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, chairman of the bishops' department for education, has written to every headteacher of the 2,075 Catholic maintained primary and secondzay schools to urge them to back the campaign. He has promised to "vehemently oppose" the amendment.

The archbishop said the quota would break one of the principles of the 1944 Education Act, the basis of the partnership between the Government and the Catholic Church in education.

"In effect, the Government is saying that the vision of Catholic education on which our schools are built, and towards which you, your colleagues and parents work so hard, has to be interfered with from the outside in order to make sure it serves social cohesion," he said.

Critics of the Bill say secular groups have run a well-targeted campaign that has built on national fears about Muslim schools and the promotion of fimdarnental ism to attack the wider faith community. At present, the amendment would apply only to new faith schools but there are fears that if passed the quota would be applied acmes the board. Education experts believe that the right of Catholic parents to educate their children in Catholic schools could be lost forever.

Senior Catholic peers are preparing for an impassioned debate in the Lords but they hope that a "short, sharp campaign" will be sufficient to force the Government to back down. Lord Brennan, president of the Catholic Union, said this week that the proposals should be rejected "because there is no supporting evidence, the alternatives have not been explored and the plans are hopelessly impractical".

Jamie Bogle, chairman of the same organisation, said the quotas were being promoted to satisfy a secular argument.

"The ethos of a school is inextricably linked to its underlying philosophy and beliefs and imposing quotas will necessarily make inroads into that ethos," he argued.

"Since ethos and excellence are intertwined, to attack one is to attack the other. Make no mistake, this is an attack on Catholic education and this is not a time for faintheartedness from our spiritual leaders.

We are all in favour of promoting good community relations but these amendments are not the way to achieve that laudable aim."

The issue of quotas was raised initially by Lord Baker of Dorking, who proposed a 30 per cent quota of non-believers or other faith pupils to be set as standard. The Government has partially acceded to his demands by agreeing that a 25 per cent quota will not be compulsory but may be imposed by local authorities as they see fit.

There are growing fears that the Government is using the issue of faith schools to disentangle itself from a wider and more pervasive crisis over multiculturalism. A meeting last Monday between the Secretary of State for Education Alan Joluison and religious leaders failed to assuage Catholic concerns.

The Government has already announced that it intends to give Ofsted inspectors greater powers to enforce the teaching of other religions in faith schools and the school admissions code of practice, cun-ently under review, will further limit the

rights of school governors to allocate school places. In addition, free school transport for Catholic pupils has already been withdrawn by local education authorities in Essex and Hertfordshire, effectively denying many Catholic children a place at the school of their choice.

Jackie Johnson, headteacher of St Philometia's, a heavily over-subscribed Catholic secondary school in Carshalton, Surrey, said faith schools were being unfairly targeted.

"Our ethnic profile here is very mixed and we have children from many different cultural backgrounds," she explained. "We already have to nun Catholic parents away and the imposition of a quota would make that situation worse."

Ms Johnson described the proposals as "misguided tinkering" that denied the contribution made by Catholic schools to education in Britain.

"It is plainly unjust to permit a faith school and then exclude children of that faith through quotas," she added. "Quota is a divisive word and this measure is delib erately divisive. There are clearly issues with Muslim education regarding tolerance and inclusion, but these should not be dealt with in this manner?'

Speaking in the House of Lords last week, Lord Alton of Liverpool said improvements in community relations were achieved voluntarily, not thtnugh legislation. He warned the House that the quota proposal would not address the fundamental causes of segregation but would gradually emasculate Church schools.

He said: "The Government and others offer a magician's bargain: they say that if we go along with the amendment on new faith schools they will not touch existing ones — not for now, at any rate.

"But in a country where in the past few days a British Airways worker has been banned from wearing a (TOSS on a necklace, the Minister would be surprised if people of religious faith were not anxious about the new intolerance that has been gathering a head of steam."

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