Prof Philip Booth, writing in the Catholic Herald, asks whether free schools are free enough.

For Catholics, the importance of parental autonomy in education is unambiguous. As with all Catholic social teaching, the policy proposals that flow from that principle are a matter for prudential judgment. Judgments now need to be made about the Coalition Government’s “free schools” policy and the Bishops of England and Wales are in the process of deliberating about what they should say.

The common good and human flourishing can only be realised if families are able to educate their children in the way parents, in good conscience, believe is appropriate for them. Children are all different so the precise institutional setting that is right for one child may not be right for another. Some children may thrive in big schools with lots of facilities and others in small schools where the resources are focused on more personal contact between teachers and children. Still others may thrive through homeschooling. In all cases the teaching of the faith should be properly provided for. In addition, of course, there is a role for the Government to ensure that children are protected from harm and that basic civic norms are nurtured.

Unfortunately, Catholic parents have got used to being told where their children should go to school both by the bishops and by local government bureaucracies. Realistically, today, most only have a choice between the local voluntary aided school and the local non-Catholic school.

In fact, most parents would be surprised to see how strong the accent on parental autonomy is in Catholic teaching. Canon Law states: “Catholic parents have also the duty and the right to choose those means and institutes which, in their local circumstances, can best promote the catholic education of their children … Parents must have a real freedom in their choice of schools.” Bishops, as has been pointed out by the Catholic Education Service in the current debate over free schools, can choose whether to give a school the title “Catholic”. But the spirit of subsidiarity is not just applied in the political domain. There is no reason why dioceses should be the sole or even main provider of education that is designated Catholic. Canon Law says: “If there are no schools in which an education is provided that is imbued with a Christian spirit, the diocesan bishop has the responsibility of ensuring that such schools are established.” In other words, bishops may establish schools if necessary, but this responsibility is not a reason for putting impediments in the way of parents, lay movements and other groups who wish to develop a school with a distinctly Catholic character. Indeed, in the spirit of Vatican II bishops should encourage the laity to be active in education. While the bishops have every right to be cautious in allowing new schools to be formally described as “Catholic” they should not be deliberately obstructive.

Catholic social teaching in the matter of school financing is also interesting. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church argues that it is an injustice for the state not to support attendance at non-state schools, that a state monopoly of education offends justice and that the state cannot merely tolerate private schools. In a spirit of solidarity, it is quite appropriate that the state should finance education on some basis because, without such finance, human flourishing would not be possible for some people. But the principle of subsidiarity demands that such funding is directed through parents in ways that help them to meet their legitimate responsibilities.

This may provide a case for the bishops supporting free schools. There are, though, legitimate concerns about the model. In the last few years, there has been increasing state control of all aspects of education. This includes control of admissions policies, curriculum, sex and personal health education, and so on. Organisations sponsored by the government enter schools to provide abortion and contraception advice. It remains to be seen how free new schools will be in these important areas. Admissions policies of new faith schools will be heavily constrained. The curriculum of free schools has to be approved by a single person – the Secretary of State for Education. As such, it is not clear whether Christian approaches to sex education will be allowed.

It would seem that, when it comes to the establishment of new free schools, our bishops should be pushing the government to go further – insofar as they wish to make representations at all. Free schools should be more free than is proposed.

There will be some concern among Catholics that greater freedom for schools will lead to greater social inequality. We should be careful not to trade fundamental parental rights for other values but, in any case, the evidence suggests that there is no cause for concern. Education systems with strong state control – for example, in Britain and America – produce less equal outcomes and worse outcomes for the poor than systems where more parental autonomy is allowed (for instance, in much of continental Europe).

There is a good reason for this. In our education system the better off can improve their children’s education by moving house, by paying privately, by using private tutors or by articulating their needs to the relevant authorities. These options are not generally open for the poor. Evidence from genuine educational choice programmes demonstrates that it is the poor, those from minorities and those with special educational needs that benefit most. Parental autonomy is a pro-poor policy. As ever, Catholic social teaching, properly understood, runs with the grain of alleviating wide-ranging social concerns.

While there is a strong Catholic case for new free schools, whether existing voluntary aided schools should become free schools or academies is a moot point. There are potential legal and technical difficulties that may be legitimate causes for concern. But the particular concerns that the bishops have expressed, such as the valuable bureaucracy-to-bureaucracy relationship the bishops have with the local authorities, are secondary problems at best. The concern for the “family of schools principle” should also not be the primary consideration. The free school approach may well promote cooperation between different educational institutions, between schools and Catholic movements and between schools and the wider community. Maryvale, for example, could set up its own free school with a sixth form. The many disused Catholic buildings, vacated by orders, could become centres of Catholic education.

Who knows what the future holds. The bishops’ prime concern should not be the management of schools but the creation of a framework in which a thousand flowers can bloom in a new era for Catholic education.