Damian Hinds ends hopes for Catholic free schools

Since January, when Damian Hinds was appointed education secretary in Theresa May’s reshuffle, everyone had agreed that he was likely to lift the cap on new Catholic free schools. The Tories had promised to do so, and Hinds – a weekly Mass-goer – publicly supported the idea.

Westminster-watchers said that Hinds would make it a priority, as soon as this careful operator had prepared a full data-based defence of the policy. Whispers from the Department for Education suggested that an announcement was in the works. A panicked letter to the Daily Telegraph, signed by secularists from Richard Dawkins to ex-Top of the Pops presenter Jamie Theakston, warned the government that new papist schools would be “exclusive, monocultural [and] segregated”. It all looked very promising.

So what happened between January and last week, when Hinds announced that the ban would remain in place? The official Department for Education press release didn’t say much, beyond an awkward reference to “social cohesion”.

Since Catholic schools are exceptionally diverse in terms of ethnicity and class, this seems an odd reason to prevent new ones. Existing Catholic schools can select up to 100 per cent of pupils on the basis of faith; they are not, as far as anyone knows, producing a generation of sectarian fanatics. Keeping the free school admissions limit at 50 per cent Catholic – which the bishops say would force them to break their canonical obligations to Catholic parents – seems pointless. And for parents, who often go to great lengths to get their children into Catholic schools, the decision will be disappointing.

It is possible that the secularist lobbying paid off. Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said in a statement: “An ominous lesson can be drawn of how a government can acquiesce with a small and largely secularist lobby to undermine the freedom in which Christians can live and educate their children.”

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