Late baptisms soar as parents chase Catholic school places

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The Independent Online

Parents desperate for a place in oversubscribed Catholic schools are responsible for a surge in "late" baptisms into the faith.

Research published today shows baptisms of children aged between one and 13 make up nearly a third of all entrants into the Church (30.3 per cent) compared with just 5.4 per cent 50 years ago. This represents a rise from 6,925 children to 20,141.

In the same period, the percentage of "cradle" baptisms into the Church has gone down from 85 per cent to 64 per cent in the same period. The figures show there were 108,996 cradle baptisms in 1958 and 42,425 in 2005 – the last year for which figures are available.

Tony Spencer, of the Pastoral Research Centre Trust, which published the research, said the rise in "late" baptisms was fuelled by the desire of marginal or lapsed Catholics to secure a place at an oversubscribed Catholic school. He said that Catholic schools were more generously funded than they were in the 1950s when they were "impoverished". As a result, they were able to offer a better standard of education and had improved their examination results.

"By the time you reached the 1970s, Catholic schools were no longer impoverished and they were becoming good, very good and excellent schools," Mr Spencer said. "Because of that, the demand for places increased not only from Catholics but from the rest of the community. It is a great compliment from the community at large to the quality of the Catholic school system."

The figures come just three days after the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, Ed Balls, announced that the Government was no longer supporting a major expansion of faith schools. His announcement was seen as a major shift from the policy pursued under Tony Blair. The former prime minister wanted faith schools to sponsor his flagship academies, saying their better exam results meant they could spread their good practice on to struggling inner-city comprehensives.

However, Professor Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment at the University of Buckingham, said that faith schools did better in exams because they could be more selective over their pupil intake – rather than because of their faith status.

Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales, said the Church should continue to be reassured that people still sought baptism for their children even if it was later in their lives. She acknowledged that "there may well be some who, as the baby grows up, give more careful consideration to the question of education and decide that they do want their child to be baptised and have the best possible opportunity to attend a Catholic school. That the child is brought into the Church and the family's bond with the Church strengthened can only be a good thing – irrespective of whether the child does eventually have the benefit of attending a Catholic school," she said.

Meanwhile, Britain's faith schools are facing a recruitment crisis with a lack of committed Christian teachers available to take up headship or teaching roles. Liverpool Hope University, the only ecumenical university in Europe, is holding a careers fair next Tuesday specifically aimed at students considering a career as a teacher in a faith school.

Paul Gaunt, the acting head of career development at Liverpool Hope, said: "If we don't address the decline in recruitment of faith-based teachers now the future looks bleak for Britain's faith schools."