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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Richmond Borough Clash on Catholic School

The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames has stirred up huge controversy by offering the first, and so far only, available site for a much-needed new secondary school to the Roman Catholic Church – effectively barring 90% of local children.

Local Catholics have been lobbying for a Catholic secondary school in the borough for years, complaining that Richmond is one of only two London boroughs without one. This is despite the fact that there are already 8 Catholic secondaries within 5 miles of the centre of the borough, and even the Catholic diocese of Westminster says it has enough places at its schools for children of local Catholics.

The Conservative administration included a promise to “encourage” a local Catholic secondary in its May 2010 election manifesto, and Catholic school supporters raised an 1100-signature petition to support the policy earlier this year.

The borough is facing a growing shortage of places at good secondaries, as well as a lack of sites and funding. So the plan to give top priority to a Voluntary Aided school where admissions will be effectively closed to the 90% of borough children who are non-Catholics has run into heavy opposition.

The Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign (RISC) was launched in April this year, building on an earlier protest by local humanists. By being careful itself to be as inclusive as possible, and particularly not to be anti-religious, or party-political, it’s rapidly grown to become an effective pressure group involving people from a wide range of beliefs and backgrounds, including fair-minded Catholics.

RISC’s formal objectives are also for schools with fair admissions, fair employment and fair and balanced teaching about religion and belief. But the number one issue is fair admissions at new schools. As soon as the council announced at the end of July the purchase of a site and a firm plan to offer it to the Catholic church for a VA school, the RISC launched on-line petition asking them “to ensure that every state-funded school opening in the borough from now on is inclusive, so that no child can be denied a place in a good local school because of the religion or belief of their parents”. It has already attracted well over 1,300 signatures.

RISC coordinatorJeremy Rodell said: “We were amazed at how quickly the petition took off, and how strongly parents and taxpayers feel about it. Our petition does not even rule out new faith schools, or even a new Catholic school on the new site in Twickenham, provided they have inclusive admissions. But what the Council is proposing is the opposite of that. As soon as it’s full, this new school will be bound by church rules to turn away children simply because their parents aren’t Catholics, even if they live next door. That just can’t be right.”

The petition has secured enough support to trigger a debate at a full council meeting on 13th September. And supporters say they will be outside the Council’s offices in Twickenham before the meeting to demonstrate their concerns and encourage more people to sign up.

Jeremy is realistic about the prospects for immediate success: “We’re not expecting a 180 degree change in plan as a result of this short debate, at which only three Councillors will have time to respond to our petition. But we’re certainly demonstrating in a clear and formal way that there is a massive groundswell of voter opposition to the Council’s plan. Maybe, just maybe, someone will listen.”

If you have a home, work or study address in the London Borough of Richmond, do sign up both to the petition at http://tinyurl.com/riscpetition1and as an RISC supporter at www.richmondinclusiveschools.org.uk

See also: Richmond Times report

Published Fri, 09 Sep 2011