Blog: Catholic Church’s opposition to Free Schools’ 50% faith-based admissions cap is motivated by desire for control

Recently the Catholic Education Service (CES), Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales and various Catholic dioceses have been voicing their opposition to the fact that Free Schools are not allowed to select more than 50% of pupils with reference to faith. This has extended to the Archdiocese of Liverpool last week telling a private Catholic school that it could not become a Free School because ‘It would be extraordinary, if not contrary to Canon Law… to set up a school or allow a school designated as Catholic to be set up, which turned away Catholic pupils on the grounds that they are Catholic.’ Here we explore why the Church is opposed to such a cap.

First of all, any opposition is inconsistent with the fact that two Catholic Free Schools, St Michael’s Catholic Secondary School in Cornwall and St Anthony’s School in Gloucestershire, have already opened, and a third, Trinity Academy in Lambeth, has support from the Government to open this September. Both St Michael’s and St Anthony’s were private schools prior to becoming Free Schools. Trinity Academy, however, is a brand new school, and in fact is proposing to select no pupils at all on the basis of faith. In addition, the Fair Admissions Campaign’s own research suggests that many private Catholic schools do not have admissions policies that religiously select all or perhaps any of their pupils on the basis of faith – suggesting that much more care is taken to ensure such selection is occurring when the taxpayer is paying for the places.

Now St Mary’s College in Crosby, Sefton (a local authority where a third of both primary and secondary places are already Catholic, compared to 10% nationally), is proposing to also convert from being a private school to a Free School. The Independent reports that ‘The school believes the move will bring it back into line with the pledge by its founding fathers – the Congregation of Christian Brothers – to provide an education for the poor children of Liverpool.’ The head teacher is quoted as saying, ‘Being a Free School would enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds to come to the school. It seems strange that the Catholic Church would want to stop that. It is frustrating.’

Some opponents of the 50% cap also like to point out that 30% of pupils attending state Catholic schools do not identify as Catholic, therefore claiming that a certain level of inclusivity is already the case. However, almost all of this 30% reflects the fact that some Catholic schools are not oversubscribed with Catholics. Others are, and therefore will admit no non-Catholics at all. If those citing this statistic truly wanted to see every school having 30% of pupils being non-Catholic, then they would support a religious selection limit of about 50% – as after all, some of the 50% of places not selected by reference to faith will probably end up going to Catholics anyway.

So what motivates the opposition to the cap? It cannot be concern about a lack of places at Catholic schools for children of Catholics – as if the Catholic Church had supported the Free Schools programme, there would probably be more Catholic Free Schools by now and hence a greater number of places reserved for Catholics than there are. It also cannot be a desire for every place at a Catholic school to be held by a Catholic, on the basis of maintaining the Catholicity of the environment – or else we would see the Catholic Church also campaigning against its state schools having to admit children of non-Catholics if not sufficiently oversubscribed with Catholics, and for its private schools to have religiously stricter admissions policies than they do at the moment. (In fact, in its policy document, the CES quotes the Archbishop of Westminster as saying that ‘others who seek a place at the school are most welcome as long as space permits. They are fully part of the school community and greatly treasured.’)

Appeals to Canon Law also fall flat when one realises that the situation in England and Wales is out of step other developed countries; only the Republic of Ireland, some provinces of Canada, and (for a few private schools getting state funding) Germany, allow state Catholic schools to select in this way. In Scotland there are also state Catholic schools but these often do not religiously select at all. The schools are not in charge of their admissions policies (that is the local authority) and there are no complaints being made by the Catholic Church in Scotland about this.

Instead, the issue appears to simply be one of who has control over the schools’ admissions policies. Indeed, a statement last November by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference said simply that ‘the conditions required to ensure a distinctive Catholic education remain the ownership of the school or college site, the appointment of the majority of governors, admissions arrangements, the RE curriculum and its inspection, worship, and the employment of staff. Accordingly, the Bishops’ Conference takes the view that the imposition of a 50% cap on the control of admissions is not a secure basis for the provision of a Catholic school and urges dioceses to resist any pressure to establish a school on that basis.’

Such a justification is patently absurd as it does not consider as reasonable the view that there might be a need for compromise when state funding is involved. Instead it assumes that there should be an absolute right over admissions to state schools, regardless of the implications in terms of religious, ethnic and socio-economic segregation, and whether the state or the wider public have concerns as a consequence. The Government has been robust in rejecting those calling for the cap to be lifted. We hope that this continues.


For further information or comment please contact Paul Pettinger on 020 7324 3071 or email

The Fair Admissions Campaign wants all state-funded schools in England and Wales to be open equally to all children, without regard to religion or belief. The Campaign is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations. We hold diverse views on whether or not the state should fund faith schools. But we all believe that faith-based discrimination in access to schools that are funded by the taxpayer is wrong in principle and a cause of religious, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation, all of which are harmful to community cohesion. It is time it stopped.

Supporters of the campaign include the Accord Coalition, the British Humanist Association, Professor Ted Cantle and the iCoCo Foundation, the Association of Teachers and LecturersBritish Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Campaign for State Education, the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the Hindu Academy, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrat Education AssociationLiberal Youth, the Local Schools NetworkRichmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, the Runnymede Trust, the Socialist Educational Association, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.