But Archbishop Nichols says Catholic schools face 'difficult opportunity' over voluntary quota scheme
BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
AN UNPRECEDENTED campaign by the Catholic Church in England and Wales has forced the Government to back down from plans to impose quotas of non-Catholic pupils in Catholic schools.
The climbdown by Education Secretary Alan Johnson was described by Lord Baker of Dorking as the "fastest U-turn in British political history". It came after more than 50 Labour MPs contacted the Secretary of State to say that they feared losing the support of Catholic voters if the Government pressed ahead with its proposals.
Whitehall was also deluged with tens of thousands of letters from Catholic teachers and parents furious at the plans.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, chairman of the Catholic Education Service, an agency of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, also met Mr Johnson in person to drive home the bishops' "vehement" opposition to "political interference" in Catholic education.
Mr Johnson later announced he had reached a voluntary agreement with the Catholic Church and the Church of England which, he said, made legislation unnecessary.
Catholic schools were finally able to celebrate this week as a last-ditch attempt to introduce compulsory quotas of non-faith pupils was finally rejected in the House of Lords.
The vote in the upper house on Monday saw peers reject an amendment to the Education and Inspections Bill by three to one.
The amendment, which would have forced Catholic schools to allocate a quarter of places to pupils of other or no faiths, had been reintroduced by Lord Baker after the Government withdrew from its commitment to legislate on the issue.
Although it marked the end of a dramatic week for the Catholic Church in England and Wales there are signs that the secularist lobby is not ready to concede defeat and in an exclusive interview with The Catholic Herald Archbishop Nichols said new and difficult obstacles lay ahead.
He warned schools that further attacks from secularists could be expected.
The archbishop, who spearheaded the campaign by writing to every Catholic head teacher in the country. said the Church was necessarily in partnership with local education authorities.
"As those local authorities are politically structured there will always be changes of opinion and the emergence of views that are hostile to our mission," he explained. "That's the nature of trying to put faith into practice."
The new voluntary quota — to be agreed only after places have been first allocated to Catholic pupils — will clearly require cooperation with local education chiefs, he said. "Historically, Catholic schools have been restrained from planning for the admission of pupils who are not Catholic. This agreement is a new opportunity for Catholic education and it's a difficult opportunity.
"Over the last few decades there has been an increasing proportion of non-Catholics in our schools and this is a mix that can be handled well within the mission of Catholic education. Now we are entering the stage where we can plan for the future."
He added that Catholic schools could be "confident and robust about their Catholic character" and he offered his personal thanks for the support of the Catholic community. People, he argued, wanted what was best for their children and they wanted to defend their faith.
He said: "I think what the campaign has demonstrated is the depth of feeling within the Catholic community about the importance of Catholic schools. In many ways a Catholic school brings together people's commitment to their faith together with their commitment to their children. Those are two very powerful motivators. I was delighted at the response and I'd like to thank everyone who took
the trouble to write to their MPs. Its been effective and I'm very, very grateful."
After Mr Johnson abandoned his proposed "legislative route" Lord Baker accused Archbishop Nichols of "deception" for suggesting that the quotas would be extended to existing faith schools rather than applying simply to new schools. However, fears of a backlash in the Lords were unfounded.
Jackie Johnson, head teacher of St Philomena's Catholic secondary school in Carshalton, Surrey, told The Catholic Herald that while parents would be relieved at the
latest outcome there were further struggles ahead.
She said that schools were still under attack from various aspects of the Government's education policy. "Catholic head teachers across the country will tell you that we have ongoing issues with this Government. We might have won the latest battle on quotas but the consultation period on the new admissions code ends in December and this is of continuing concern to schools.
"What this latest campaign has demonstrated is the essential importance of having an articulate Catholic Church. There needs to be continuing dialogue so that we can avoid having last-minute policy decisions foisted upon us. I would hope that the voluntary agreement on school places is flexible enough to meet the needs of the schools and the communities they serve."
In a statement Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor welcomed the Government's announcement. He said the Catholic Church would continue to educate children in a way "that ensures their full integration into British society and that enables young people to make a positive contribution to its moral and social well-being".
Archbishop Nichols said he did not resent those who had attacked the Church for its hard-hitting campaign. "Lord Baker was committed to his cause and clearly feared the development of Muslim schools, funded by the taxpayer, as a divisive initiative," he said. "He spoke intemperately but I don't hold a grudge. We are confident that our schools deliver both good education and education that is good for the country."
The full text of the interview with Archbishop Nichols will be available on our website.
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