Sir Edward Leigh is Member of Parliament for Gainsborough.
According to legend, Oxford University was founded in 872 when King Alfred the Great met some local monks and had a scholarly debate that lasted several days.
Having debated with many monks and priests over the years, I can see how this might have happened. Regardless of whether the story is true or not, the Catholic Church can justifiably claim to be the first provider of schools and universities in this country.
The Church continues to be one of the largest providers of education to this day. This month, almost 850,000 pupils will be starting a new academic year at Catholic schools, academies, and colleges in England and Wales.
The endurance of Catholic schools is not a simple historical hangover. Their success is plain to see. Catholic schools educate a higher proportion of pupils from deprived backgrounds, they are more ethnically diverse, and achieve better results on average than other state schools.
Catholic schools are not, unfortunately, without their critics. A recent UN Committee report suggested that schools in England should be prevented from taking religion into account when selecting pupils – a move that would effectively end Catholic schools overnight. The National Secular Society and others have been all too happy to jump on this bandwagon.
Yet there have also been times when our Party in Government has failed to recognise the importance of Catholic schools, or at least, has not defended them as being important for parent choice and pupil wellbeing.
While the free school programme did much to inject fresh ideas and investment into the school system, it is a source of great sadness that the Catholic Church in England has not been able to take part in this flagship policy.
The 50 percent cap on faith-based admissions to new free schools, introduced at the insistence of Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government, has seen the oldest provider of schools in the country excluded from the programme.
The cap applies where a free school with a religious character is oversubscribed, limiting the number of pupils that can be admitted on the basis of religion to 50 percent.
As Catholic schools are nearly always oversubscribed, it would mean schools turning away pupils because of their faith. It is a policy that goes against Church law. Catholic Bishops have refused to sanction the creation of new Catholic free schools while the cap is in place.
Lifting the cap was in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, but despite the change not requiring new legislation or new money from the Treasury, it has proved difficult to shift.
This week, I delivered a letter to the Education Secretary signed by over 1,000 people calling on Gillian Keegan to “scrap the cap”. This is a policy that the Catholic community in this country cares deeply about.
Not only is the cap preventing Catholic free schools from opening, but it is casting a shadow over existing Catholic schools by painting them as a risk that needs to be managed rather than an asset to the communities they serve.
With a General Election not far off, we may never get a better opportunity to finally lift the cap. Lifting the cap would be a huge vote of confidence in Catholic schools in this country and would be welcome by people from other faiths, especially in the Jewish community.
Education is likely to be a key battleground at the next election, with the role of faith schools forming part of the debate. Sir Keir Starmer recently said that a Labour Government would be “even more supportive of faith schools” than the current Government.
For those of us who have been following Labour education policy, this raises more than an eyebrow. Their policy of introducing VAT on school fees would disproportionately affect faith schools, which tend to be smaller private schools.
While in Wales, the Welsh Labour Government has been on something of a mission to undermine Catholic education. They are currently considering plans to make “Humanism” compulsory as part of the GCSE curriculum on religious studies.
Lifting the cap is not only the right thing to do, it would clearly show that the Government is on the side of faith groups and parent choice going into the next General Election. The Prime Minister has spoken about the importance of faith and family on many occasions. This is one area where he can put those words into practice.
There will be the predictable outrage from groups and individuals who think religion should have no place in society, but Catholics have never been afraid of debate. Just look at Alfred the Great.