At the age of 11 I had a choice. I could either attend a Catholic secondary school or a secondary school without a religious character. I chose the Catholic secondary school. This school, Notre Dame, had a catchment area covering half the city of Sheffield. This meant that there were pupils from affluent and less-affluent areas, from the inner city and the suburbs and from the families of many nationalities. I had classmates who were Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Muslim and of no-faith at all. Had I chosen the non-Catholic school, all of my fellow pupils would have lived in the same neighbourhood and would been almost uniformly white-British.
My experience was not an exceptional one because Catholic schools are diverse. They have more pupils from deprived neighbourhoods, one third of the pupils attending Catholic schools are not Catholic and the percentage of black and minority ethnic pupils in Catholic schools is significantly higher than in non-faith schools. They are also more likely to have an Ofsted grade of good or outstanding. Not only that, Church schools provide a rounded education with a strong emphasis on the social and moral development of everyone, helping each person to recognise the importance of being active in their communities.
Critics of faith school frequently argue that allowing faith to be used as an admissions criterion is discriminatory and that everyone should be able to study at faith schools. An obvious response is that many pupils in Church schools do not share the faith of the school they attend. For example, there are over 26,000 Muslim pupils attending Catholic schools in England and Wales. It is important to remember that the Church provided the land, buildings and ongoing financial support for Church schools. Is it liberal to argue that central government should insist on one set of admissions rules for every school, of whatever type, in every circumstance without faith communities having a say?
Another crucial point is that every oversubscribed school must discriminate and decide who gets a place and who does not. If faith is not included as an admissions criterion, then geography is king. If you live near enough to the popular school, then you are in. In such a situation, it is those with the highest incomes and wealth who have the most choice – they can buy homes in the right catchment area. I do not see how transferring choice and opportunity to the richest and wealthiest is progressive.
I support faith schools because of my liberalism, not despite it. I welcome the diversity they bring to our education system. I like the fact that they are socially and racially diverse and that disadvantaged students do especially well in Catholic schools. It is a good thing that they focus on a rounded education and not just exam results.
Ultimately, as a liberal, I want schools to have freedoms and not to insist on a one-size-fits-all rule from Whitehall that would result in more opportunities for the rich and fewer for poorer families.
* Peter Taylor is the Lib Dem Group Leader and Deputy Mayor of Watford. He is also the Assistant Director at the Catholic Education Service.