In its 2017 manifesto, the Conservative Party made an eye-catching promise. If it won the election, it would scrap the so-called 50 per cent cap. The cap made it impossible for the Catholic Church in England and Wales to open new free schools – independent, but state-funded institutions – because no more than half of places could be offered to Catholic pupils. The bishops argued that this breached canon law. The Tory manifesto promised to “replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools”.

The Conservatives were duly elected and the bishops waited for them to keep their promise. It soon became clear that the Government was having second thoughts. Humanist campaigners seemed to have the ear of the then education secretary Justine Greening. So the bishops mobilised Catholics, asking parents to let Whitehall know that they expected the cap to be lifted.

When Greening was replaced by the Catholic-educated Damian Hinds, many predicted that the cap would go. In a parliamentary debate in 2014, Hinds had said that the “well-intentioned” policy prevented Catholics from creating high-quality new schools. In one of his first interviews as Education Secretary, Hinds confirmed that the cap would be abolished. That prompted a backlash.

Luminaries including Richard Dawkins and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph arguing that the move would damage “social cohesion and respect”.

Last week the government finally announced its decision. The cap would remain, but Hinds promised funds for local authorities to create more voluntary aided Catholic schools (in which parents pay 10 per cent of capital costs). Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, chairman of the bishops’ department for education and formation, accused the Tories of breaking a “pledge they made to our country’s six million Catholics and ignored the tens of thousands of Catholics who campaigned on this issue”. It was a “regressive step” in the historic educational partnership between Church and state. Nevertheless, the bishops would “pursue the possibility of new Catholic voluntary aided schools”.

Hinds was vague about the reason for the U-turn. He suggested it was something to do with community cohesion. This is curious, given the diversity of the 2,142 Catholic schools in England. Of the 823,000 students at established Church schools, 68 per cent are Catholic and 36 per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the Catholic Education Service (CES). Some speculate that Hinds kept the cap in order to prevent radical Islamic, Hindu or Sikh groups from creating free schools. If that’s true, he should say so and explain why he thinks it just to treat Catholic schools as though they present a similar threat to social harmony.

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