Johnson Ditches Faith School Admission Quotas

Education Secretary Alan Johnson today bowed to bitter opposition and abandoned plans to impose admissions quotas on faith schools. In a stunning climbdown, he ditched proposed legislation forcing all new faith schools to reserve a quarter of places for non-believers.

The Government will instead foot the bill for additional places at faith schools if there is demand from local families outside the religion.

The U-turn followed an unprecedented lobbying campaign by the Catholic Church which mobilised clergy, parents and teachers to fight the plans.

They also threatened to inflict serious damage at the ballot box if Labour pressed ahead with plans to hand councils powers to impose the 25 per cent quotas.

Mr Johnson also came under pressure from Labour backbenchers who warned he was risking unpopularity by appearing to attack faith schools.

His aides said he had managed to reach agreement with Catholic leaders within the last few days that meant new legislation was no longer necessary.

Church groups made clear their schools would open their doors to non-believers as long as local Catholic families did not have to be turned away.

“I have listened carefully to colleagues on this issue and recognise that we all share the same goal for a more cohesive society where faith schools play an important part in building understanding and tolerance of other faiths and communities” said Mr Johnson last night.

Letters exchanged between the Education Secretary and Catholic Education Service reveal he still intended to table an amendment to the Government’s flagship Education Bill just hours before he announced the climbdown.

Mr Johnson declared last week he wanted to give councils discretion to order faith schools to set aside up to 25 per cent of their places for those outside the faith.

He insisted he would be able to overrule councils attempting to impose the 25 per cent requirement in the face of strong local opposition.

At the time, he declared: “By opening up a proportion of places to children of different faiths where local communities wish this, we will help create a system where all faith schools play a full part in the education of local children.”

But the proposals ran into furious opposition from Muslim and Jewish leaders as well as Roman Catholic groups.

They argued the plans raised the prospect of devout families being turned away from their schools and could lead to the eventual extension of quotas to existing faith schools.

The Catholic Church mounted a furious battle against the plans, galvanising parents and parishioners to lobby MPs and ministers in protest.

Leaders wrote to heads of the 2,000 Catholic primary and secondary schools telling them to express their “outrage” at the government proposals.

Bishops urged local priests to use the pulpit to raise awareness of the planned changes.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the head of Catholics in Britain, described quotas as “unacceptable”.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, chairman of the Catholic Education Service, claimed that the government’s proposals showed at best “muddled thinking” and at worst “prejudice”.

Mr Johnson’s humiliating retreat, less than a fortnight after the plans were revealed in a Sunday newspaper and four days before he was due to present his amendment to the Lords, came in a statement issued last night.

In it, he concedes that any places for non-believers at new Catholic schools would have to be “additional to the demand for faith places”.

The Church of England had already pledged to set aside up to 25 per cent of places voluntarily for non-believers – but insisted other faiths should not be forced to follow suit.

Mr Johnson said: “As we now have the support of the two major faith organisations in the country for our proposed way forward, I do not feel the legislative route is necessary or appropriate and no longer propose to lay an amendment to the Education and Inspection Bill.”

Instead new duties will be placed on governors of faith schools to “promote community cohesion”.

Ofsted will be granted new powers to inspect schools for their compliance with the directive.

“We decided we didn’t need to use a legislative stick” said an aide to Mr Johnson.

Meanwhile faiths will be spared the extra costs of setting up schools large enough to take up to 25 per cent additional non-believers.

They currently have to stump up 10 per cent of the costs of new schools but would not be liable for the cost of building extra classrooms to accommodate youngsters outside the faith.

These extra places would only be created if town halls identified demand.

Welcoming the climbdown, Archbishop Nichols said he was “grateful” to Mr Johnson.

He added: “We came to a broad agreement about how future Catholic schools could be planned in ways that ensure that they always meet the needs of Catholic parents.

“This is of prime importance to Catholics and accepted by the Secretary of State.”

Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: “It was clear that this was an ill-thought out, last minute idea from the Government which they have now been forced to abandon.

“Attempts to rush through half-baked changes to the education bill in its final stages were never the right way to deal with the serious issue of faith education in Britain.”