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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before I call the next Member, I remind the House that there is a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.59 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on her introductory speech and on the conduct of her office since she took over.

I am sure that all my constituents share my delight at the progress in literacy and numeracy under this Government and I congratulate all the teachers involved in that work. They, like parents and children, face immense difficulty in learning in our ill-disciplined society. We must all remember that it is easier to make

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speeches in the House of Commons than it is to try to teach children in our schools today, with all the pressures that are brought to bear on them.

I regret to say that in politics we tend to concentrate on those issues on which we do not agree with each other, but I must say that I do not in any way support the Government's desire to have more religious schools. It is wrong to divide children and communities, and more religious schools would bring about the sort of division that we are trying to move away from, especially at a time of growing concern about social exclusion and the breakdown of social cohesion in our society. We should try to subtract from the divisive aspects of our society, not add to them.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are grounds for addressing the lack of inclusivity in existing faith schools? The Government say they want inclusive schools, but faith schools are allowed to select exclusively on the basis of faith, which means that many children are unable to obtain places. Does he agree that there is a case for restricting the proportion of children who can be selected on the basis of faith by those schools?

Mr. Dobson: I do not take my hon. Friend's moderate position. I do not think that any selection on the basis of the religion of parents should be allowed. I do not like the idea of existing or future schools selecting children, and therefore rejecting other children, on the basis of their parents' religion. That is a system of sorting out the sheep from the goats, distinguishing the "in" group from the "out" group, and it promotes sectarian views.

If we need an example of a society dominated by sectarian views, we need look no further than Northern Ireland. I ask everyone in the House and outside to think whether those extremist Protestants who were harassing Catholic children going to school would have done so if Protestant children had been going to the same school. I suggest that they would not. That is an extreme example, but segregated schooling must limit the contacts that children have with people from other parts of society. It prevents them from learning directly what all children have in common and it enhances the perception of difference.

Chris Grayling: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I do not have time.

Segregated schooling reinforces the concept of them and us, and it can promote the fear and hostility that arises from lack of knowledge. Some religious schools do not limit their selection to religious grounds. Some choose pupils on the basis of whether they will fit in with the ethos of the school; in many cases, that means, "Will those children be easy to teach?" It means excluding children without much parental support, children with special needs or children who do not speak English at home. Despite the lessons of the Christmas story, many Church secondary schools say, "There is no room at the school" to children from homeless families in bed- and-breakfast accommodation, because the school is filled with better-off and more privileged children.

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Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) rose

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Dobson: No, I do not have much time and I do not want to take time from other hon. Members who wish to speak.

To be fair, some Church primary schools take all-comers. Some of them have to do so because their catchment area is predominantly not of their religious faith. In those circumstances, I wonder why they continue as Church schools at all. Less than 2 per cent. of the population of England attend Church of England services on a Sunday. More than 40 per cent. of the population have no organised religious belief, but supporters of religious schools say that Church schools would be and are popular; most reputable polls show that not to be the case.

The Church of England now says that it wants to establish 100 more Church secondary schools, partly by taking over existing non-Church schools. That must mean that some of the children living near those schools, who could have expected to go there, will be turned away in favour of Church of England schoolchildren from further afield. More choice for some will mean less choice for others.

Nothing will persuade me to support the concept of school organisation committees, on which the Church of England and the Catholic Church have two thirds of the places, being allowed to have a say—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says that I am wrong and, if so, I apologise, but I understand that the churches have a disproportionate number of places on those committees. If they do, it would be improper for them to be able to make decisions on selection.

It is also claimed that Church schools do better, in some way or other, than non-Church schools. It is certainly true that there are some brilliant Church schools and some lousy ones, and that applies across the board. There are excellent non-religious schools and excellent Church schools, and there are poor schools that have a Church involvement and others that do not. A substantial number of surveys have proved that case.

Based on experience in my constituency, I can tell the House about recent events. At the end of the summer, I visited South Camden community school, the secondary school that my children attended a few years ago, to present the records of achievement and prizes. It was a most impressive and moving ceremony. All the children were dressed up in their best. Only three children were wearing trainers—perhaps they could not afford anything else—which showed how seriously the occasion was taken. Teachers at the school are highly committed to helping the children to overcome all sorts of difficulties. I had a wonderful impression of the school that day. More recently, my view has been confirmed by the Ofsted report that praised the school for its teaching, learning, examination performance, an ethos of tolerance and respect, and the spiritual, moral, cultural and social development of its pupils.

Since 1966 or 1967, I have had the honour of being a governor of Argyle primary school in King's Cross, and there are not many more deprived places in the whole of the country. It received an Ofsted report last week that

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Eton, Harrow, Roedean or Cheltenham Ladies college would have been proud to receive. The summary said that it was an

The report said that the school's provision for pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development was "outstanding in all respects". The report is littered with the words and phrases, "excellent", "outstanding", "the highest quality" and "brilliant". The school's test results are described as

Argyle primary school, like South Camden school, has a high proportion of Bangladeshi children and a high turnover of pupils because parents come and go. They serve deprived communities and the children of refugees, asylum seekers and homeless families. Like South Camden, Argyle school has helped disadvantaged children to fulfil their potential against all the odds, and neither school is a Church school. The teachers and parents come from a variety of religious faiths and no faith at all, but they have worked together against the difficulties. I ask those who are in favour of Church schools what extra would their "special ethos" have added to those success stories?

Sadly, and ironically, the only school in my constituency to be closed because it was failing was a Roman Catholic secondary school. It used to take in large numbers of needy children who had been rejected or excluded by other Catholic secondary schools in north London. Eventually, it sank under the weight of the problems that others had piled on its teachers.

That did not reflect well on the system that allowed the school to get into such a mess—and I am not referring to Camden education authority. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) laughs, but if he thinks that Camden education authority is something to laugh at, he should look at its results. They are better than in Kent.

Finally, the evidence shows that the crosier is not a magic wand to be waved over struggling inner-city schools: hard work is what is needed. One of the other characteristics of many religious schools is that, for one reason or another, they have excluded Asian children. All sorts of people have suddenly rediscovered the Christian commitment because they want to send their children to schools that do not have many Asian children. That is one of the main reasons why other religious groups increasingly have demanded their own religious schools, on the grounds that it would be "only fair" to treat them equally.

It is probably obvious that I am a person of no religious faith. I attempt to show respect for all other people's religious faiths, and I respect those who, like me, have no such faith. However, I do not support the creation of further divisions in our society.

The Government have rightly said that not all the divisions between children and young people in our society are caused by religious schools. That is true: there are dozens of other sources of division but, at this time and at this point in our history, we ought to be trying to reduce those divisions, not increasing them.

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6.12 pm

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