Secularisation And Falling Rolls Will See Faith Schools Closing, Leading Catholic Warns

Faith schools in Wales will close as society becomes increasingly secular, a leading Catholic cleric warned yesterday. Canon Bob Reardon, Vicar General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff, said falling birth rates and numbers of people leaving Christian churches of all denominations meant some closures were inevitable.

But the Anglican Church in Wales said that in some areas numbers of parents wanting to send children to its schools were growing. Speaking after calls for faith schools to become more inclusive or lose state funding, clerics from both Churches said religious schools played an important role in education and did take children from a variety of religions.

Both denied that faith schools were divisive. Canon Reardon said around 30% of pupils in Catholic schools in Cardiff alone were from other or no faiths and the Church in Wales said 70% of pupils at St Mary the Virgin primary in Cardiff were Muslim.

But the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru (ATL) said faith schools divided society and should not be allowed to employ staff or admit pupils solely on grounds of religion if they continued to be funded from the public purse.

Across Wales there are 172 Church in Wales schools and 99 Catholic schools. They get state grants of up to 90% for buildings and 100% for running costs, said ATL Cymru director Dr Philip Dixon.

Heads of all Catholic schools must be practising Catholics and admissions forms for heads and staff of Church in Wales schools ask for church references and say ‘particular consideration’ is given to applicants on grounds of ‘religious commitment’. Governors are allowed to decide their own entry criteria for pupils.

There is no rule on what percentage of places in faith schools are given to children of other or no faiths. Dr Dixon said this was not enough: “Faith schools must become more accountable if they are to continue getting current levels of tax payers money,” he said. “In a country which is becoming increasingly multi-faith it is hard to justify public taxes being used to fund schools which in effect discriminate against the majority of school children and potential staff on the grounds of their religious belief.”

He said some schools were well integrated with their local communities but others ‘increased divisions’. Canon Reardon and the Rev Edwin Counsell, education officer for the Church in Wales, denied religious schools were divisive.

Mr Counsell said: “Our schools are inclusive and naturally reflect their communities. If parents did not want faith schools they wouldn’t be asking for places in them.”

Canon Derek Evans, the Church in Wales director for education in the Diocese of St Davids, said: “More parents are sending their children to Church in Wales schools than before.”

But Canon Reardon said schools in his diocese were likely to close over the next 10 to 20 years. “We are committed to the provision of faith schools but there will have to be rationalising,” he said. “It’s a combination of falling birth rates and fewer people going to church. There are surplus places in some Catholic schools. An increasingly secular society makes it more important to provide faith schools as an alternative.”