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Out of all the stories of bravery and humanity we heard in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the story of Ines Alvez is perhaps the most life-affirming. Ines, who lived with her family on the 13th floor, fled the burning tower block in the middle of the night with just her phone and chemistry notes before sitting the 9am exam in the same clothes she left in. In interviews she explains that she sat the exam because it was “all she had on [her] mind” – and doesn’t seem to grasp how extraordinary that makes her. Seven months on from the disaster, she has started her A level courses (in maths, chemistry, sociology and economics) and is thinking about university applications. Her drive and self-effacing intelligence continue to impress her friends, family and teachers.
I am not lucky enough to know Ines, but I feel a certain affiliation with her. The school in which she sat that GCSE, Sacred Heart High School, is the school I left seven years ago, and the sixth form she is at now, The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, is where I sat my A levels. The schools are both inner London Catholic comprehensives, and, like a handful of similar institutions across the country, they provide something dispiritingly rare: a genuinely first-class education for children from all economic backgrounds.
But their rarity is not an aberration – and if nothing changes, they will become rarer still.
In the last eight years, no new Catholic free schools have opened because the “50% rule”, which stipulates that where newly established Academies with a religious character are oversubscribed at least 50% of their places must allocated without reference to faith, is effectively barring their establishment.
This wasn’t the purpose of the policy: it is an unforeseen and unfortunate side effect. Under Canon law, Catholic bishops have certain obligations which mean that places cannot be preferentially offered to non-Catholics at the exclusion of Catholics. As far as possible, a bishop is meant to provide a place at a Catholic school for every pupil in his diocese. This means they could not agree to establish schools which had to turn away pupils because they were Catholic.
Unsurprisingly, the rule has been the subject of sustained criticism by Catholic bishops, parents, MPs and lobbying groups all arguing that it amounts to discrimination against Catholics – but as yet, their efforts have made no difference.
Why? Because despite masses of evidence proving that Catholic schools are some of the most inclusive around (39 per cent more pupils are from the poorest backgrounds compared to the national average for primary schools), a number of influential policymakers have a grudge against Catholic schools, and are secretly rather pleased that the 50% cap prevents them from being set up. In short, this group believe that schools like mine only manage to outperform their secular counterparts because they deviously circumvent their own published admissions criteria in order to let white upper middle-class children slip in through the backdoor.
From all my experience, and a good deal of empirical evidence, this is a myth perpetuated by those who can’t have stepped foot in a Catholic school. Catholic schools – which are as economically and ethnically diverse as any others – succeed because they have a strong ethos, which translates into good discipline, which in turn attracts talented teachers.
The pushy upper middle-class parents we hear about all time (the ones dutifully clean the church every week for four years in order to get into their children into Catholic comprehensive even though they could comfortably afford to send them to a private school) probably do exist, but their obsessive dedication is rare – and they make up a vanishingly small minority of parents. The vast majority of families are genuine Catholics, like the Alvezes, who simply want their children brought up in the faith.
One of the Conservative Party’s clearest manifesto commitments was to lift the cap on places for Catholics at new schools. It said “we will replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools, instead requiring new faith schools to prove that parents of other faiths and none would be prepared to send their children to that school”. After seven months of dilly-dallying, it is time they did just that. And with Damian Hinds, the new (Catholic) Education Secretary at the helm, it looks like they just might.