How Massed Ranks of the Catholic Church Humbled Johnson; Education Secretary Forced to Drop Faith School Quotas

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Byline: LAURA CLARK

THE scale of a Roman Catholic campaign to defeat admissions quotas for faith schools emerged yesterday as Alan Johnson was accused of making 'the fastest U-turn in British political history'.

Tens of thousands of parishioners mobilised to fight the Education Secretary's plans to force new religious schools to take a quarter of non-faith pupils.

A lobbying campaign, the like of which has not been seen since 1944 when Roman Catholic state schools were established, prompted Mr Johnson to beat a retreat less than two weeks after floating the proposals.

He was forced to announce a voluntary agreement and last night was accused of grossly underestimating the strength of feeling against plans to amend the Government's flagship education bill.

As well as Roman Catholics, critics from the Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths had also inundated him with protests.

Tory peer Lord Baker, one of Mr Johnson's predecessors as Education Secretary, accused him of staging the quickest ever U-turn as details emerged of how the Catholic church had galvanised its followers.

It rushed out letters to all 2,000 Catholic head teachers in the country urging them to lobby their MPs to vote down the plans. They in turn sent their children home with letters to parents pressing them to join the campaign against the admissions overhaul.

The Catholic Education Service also wrote to bishops urging them to invite local priests to use the pulpit to raise awareness of the planned changes among parishioners.

Hundreds of letters and emails from parents, teachers and governors were sent to the CES alone. Thousands more are said to have been posted direct to MPs as well as Mr Johnson himself and his There were warnings that up to two million Catholic voters could inflict serious damage on Labour at the ballot box if it pressed ahead with the plan.

The front page headline in the Catholic Herald this week screamed: 'Three days to save our Catholic schools.' Meanwhile Archbishop Vincent Nichols, CES chairman, wrote a newspaper article condemning Mr Johnson's planned amendment as 'illthoughtout, unworkable, contradictory of empirical evidence and deeply insulting'.

He met Mr Johnson to persuade him quotas would be unacceptable.

Catholic peers were preparing to fight the proposed amendment in the Lords but hoped a 'short, sharp campaign' would force the Government to drop the legislation.

Yesterday they were claiming victory after Mr Johnson said late on Thursday he had reached a 'voluntary agreement' with the Catholics and the Church of England.

Both churches assured him they would set aside places for non-faith pupils, removing the need for the 'blunt instrument' of legislation. …