Paul Barber does not believe that pupils should be segregated by religion.
“The move back to schools of 100 per cent one faith is dreadful,” he says, referring to the government’s recent proposal to lift its requirement that new faith schools must offer half of their places to children of other religions or none.
This view might seem counter-intuitive: as the director of the Catholic Education Service (CES), Barber’s work is to set up faith schools. But, he believes, setting up faith schools is not the same as arguing for pupils to be educated only with those of the same religion.
“We’re very clear about the nature of the education that we’re offering: an unapologetically Catholic education,” he says. “If others want to be part of that, then we want to have the spaces to be able to welcome them. That’s a real blessing for the pupils: to have children of other faiths in our schools.”
Barber is sitting in his office, in a London townhouse shared with various other Catholic organisations. Above the reception desk, the Pope smiles down from a photograph; visitors are directed to a lay preachers’ conference taking place in the basement.
Good schools, Barber says, do well because they have a strong ethos and set of values. Religion simply provides his schools with a head start.
“We’re very fortunate that, because of the faith, we have a shared set of values already,” he says. “Some schools have had to start out and create that set of values from scratch.”
‘Muslims choose our schools’
Non-Catholics, he says, often choose to send their children to Catholic schools precisely because they share the values on offer.
“Muslim parents choose our schools – they recognise that we have a set of values that, broadly, they share,” Barber says. “Simply that we understand religion and take it seriously, rather than pretending that religion doesn’t exist. That’s very important to them – they will be taken seriously and respected in our schools.”
Because of the current government cap on the proportion of places that new faith schools can offer to pupils of their own faith, the CES chose not to open any new schools for six years. It claimed that turning away Catholics was against canonical law.
“If we create a new school in an area where there’s a large demand from Catholic parents, and we’re saying from day one, ‘You can’t come to this school, because you’re Catholic,’ the Catholic community would not understand that,” Barber says. “We would then rupture the connection between the school and the parents, which undermines the whole purpose.”
It's a real blessing for our pupils to have children of other faiths in our schools
Now, however, with the government’s proposal to lift the cap, there are plans to open between 30 and 40 new Catholic schools.
Barber has been proselytising for Catholic education since he first discovered – on starting university at the age of 18 – that not everyone had had an education like his. He attended his local Catholic primary in South London, then moved on to Clapham College, a Catholic comprehensive. The schools’ populations included Nigerian, Ghanaian, Goan, Filipino, Irish and Vietnamese pupils.
“We all start off thinking our experience is normative,” he says. “It’s only later you realise that not everyone had the same experience – when I started thinking, ‘Maybe I didn’t have the bog-standard experience. Maybe I had something a bit special.’”
He was called to the Bar after university. Then, in 1996, he was appointed to the newly created position of CES legal director. After that, he moved on to run the education service for Westminster diocese – an area that covers much of London, north of the River Thames – and Hertfordshire, overseeing 220 schools and around 900,000 pupils.
He misses the hands-on nature of diocese work, he says. His diocese included a number of deprived areas, such as Tower Hamlets in East London, where schools were forced to use their own funds to help poor families buy food. One headteacher took to reading out her weekly newsletter at the school gates, because so few of the (English-born) parents were able to read.
“On one level, it was a shock,” Barber says. “But I’m also conscious of the history that we have.” He gestures to a bookshelf filled with ageing bound volumes, along one of the walls of his office. “The annual reports from 1858 – it’s really fascinating, dipping in. In some ways to see how much things have changed; in other ways to see how little has changed.”
The Catholic Poor-School Committee – later rebranded as the CES – was set up in 1847. The aim – “As it says very clearly on the tin,” Barber says – was to educate poor, largely immigrant Catholic children, many of whom had few prospects in life.
“The bishops told everyone: ‘Build schools first, and build churches later. You can use the schools temporarily for worship on a Sunday, but attending to the education of the children is by far the first priority.’”
Ultimately, Barber says, the goal of 19thcentury Catholic education was to integrate those poor communities into mainstream British life. “And,” he adds, “in some sense, we’ve never stopped. Through successive waves of immigration, that’s an ongoing theme. We’re still being a force for integration and cohesion, and social mobility. That’s been part of the mission. And we make sure we never take our eye off that starting point.”
He doesn’t shy away from the cliché: he is, he says, a man on a mission. “Absolutely, there’s a mission element to it,” he says. “That’s absolutely fundamental to it. That’s why I believe; it’s who I am.
“I’m passionate about Catholic education and how important it is for this country. I’m part of a wonderful tradition of a community that sees the value of education right at its heart.
“So, yeah, it’s a missionary endeavour.”