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Mr. Willis: I am rebuked, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I give way to the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban).

Mr. Hoban: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he is in favour of or against the extension of the current right of Catholics, Anglicans or Jews to set up faith schools to Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus? Thus far, his argument has eluded me. He says that there is no demand, but that if such schools were set up, it would lead to segregation. Is he for or against that extension?

Mr. Willis: Under current legislation, with the 1944 concordat and the 1998 Act, I accept that there is a right for faiths to apply to the Secretary of State for funding to establish a single-faith school. That is how the law stands. I question the extension of that right, because the Secretary of State has advanced no evidence to demonstrate that there is a demand throughout the nation for more single-faith schools.

The point that I want to emphasise and that we shall make in an amendment in Committee is that no school in receipt of state funding should be allowed to have an admissions policy that deliberately excludes a child either because of their faith or because they have no faith. We cannot have situations such as that in Oldham, where Blue Coat Church of England school, which is surrounded by the homes of Muslim children, deliberately excludes those children while accepting Church of England children from an area of 20 miles around Greater Manchester, because its policy states that families must attend church and Sunday school for two years for children to get into the school. No Secretary of State can possibly accept that, and all that my hon. Friends and I ask is that the Secretary of State accepts the logic of a policy in which schools cannot discriminate in their admissions policy on the basis of a child's faith or lack of faith.

Mrs. Ann Cryer: I am still not sure what the hon. Gentleman is saying about faith schools. We start from where we are now and cannot put the clock back, so if he were the Secretary of State, would he agree with the Government and encourage the expansion of faith schools, abandon any commitment to them, or keep their current number?

Mr. Willis: I have a great deal of time for the hon. Lady and, as I said, we are where we are whether we like it or not. We have a huge number of Church schools, and the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have ploughed significant resources into building and managing their schools over the years. I understand the problems of trying to create a secular system so far down the line. Let us remember that the state's involvement started in 1870, with Forster's Elementary Education Act. Oddly enough, Forster was the Member of Parliament for Bradford at the time.

I am questioning the Government's blind belief in an expansion of faith schools and the blind acceptance that the Church of England should have another 100 secondary schools simply because they want to fill in the gaps. I genuinely do not believe that communities will prosper if they have separate faith schools. I want to amend the Bill so that, if a single-faith school is created, it cannot discriminate in its admissions policy purely on the ground of faith. That is a reasonable request.

James Purnell: Given that we are where we are and that the hon. Gentleman said that the Liberal Democrats

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favoured devolving power to local education authorities, is not the Government's policy of allowing all faiths to have such an opportunity, but leaving the local school organisation committee to decide, exactly in line with his principles?

Mr. Willis: I would scrap the school organisation committees tomorrow because local authorities should do that job and their democratically elected members should take those decisions. I want to control a situation that is getting out of hand. The hon. Gentleman may not be familiar with Oldham, Burnley or Bradford, but if he were, he would recognise the huge problems of polarisation in society, and the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) knows full well what those issues are in her constituency.

Finally, I come to teacher recruitment. The hon. Member for Ashford was right that the biggest problem with the Bill is that policies to further the recruitment and retention of teachers are missing. That is the only major issue on which everyone involved in education agrees. The problem is that many schools in, for example, the constituency of the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) find it virtually impossible to recruit and retain teachers.

In some of the poorest communities elsewhere in the country—such as Bradford, where I was last week, or Oldham or those in the north-east—we shall increasingly find that the schools that get the proposed freedoms, receive the extra £500,000 and attract the extra resources will be those that attract and retain the teachers that they need, and the poorer schools will suffer.

Today's Ofsted report on literacy and numeracy standards shows that Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector of schools, makes a very important point: in many of our inner cities, the inability to retain teachers is a key factor in preventing educational standards from being raised. Sadly, the Bill will do nothing for poor communities, and I ashamed that a Labour Government have introduced it.

6.45 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. The Bill contains a wide range of measures, many of which, such as allowing schools to work closely with the community, are greatly welcomed. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her colleagues on the many achievements that have been made in the past four years. Class sizes have fallen for our infants and results in literacy and numeracy and in GCSEs have improved. The increased funding that the Government have made available has helped schools to begin to tackle the backlog of building repairs that we inherited.

In the sixteen years that I spent as a member of Staffordshire education authority, I saw class sizes grow year after year. I saw teachers dispirited and the fabric of our schools deteriorate because of the lack of funding. Although we still have to tackle the disparity in funding, which adversely affects authorities such as Staffordshire, extra resources have gone directly to our schools, which has given head teachers the flexibility as to the best use of that money.

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Even with the reduced role of the education authorities and the greater autonomy that schools now enjoy, since 1997, schools and college have begun to work more closely together for the good of the communities that they serve. The emphasis on competition, which developed under the Conservatives, has begun to be replaced by co-operation. Indeed, I am pleased to say that, in spite of the Tory policies, that potentially destructive competition was resisted by local head teachers and governing bodies in some areas of my constituency.

I believe that we should take care to ensure that some of the measures proposed in the Bill do not inadvertently again encourage division. For example, the proposals on earned autonomy could further divide the so-called best schools from the rest, by allowing them to pay teachers more than schools in less affluent areas, where the need to recruit the very best teachers is even greater.

There are two specialist schools in my constituency, and a further high school has applied to become one. I have supported their applications, knowing that such status has brought them extra funding and that the feeder schools also benefit from the support given by the specialist high schools. However, it is significant that, in my constituency, the schools that have gained specialist school status have been the largest and most popular schools, which have been those most able to attract outside finance. I do not want the other high schools, which have not become specialist schools, to be undervalued; they, too, are improving their results. Very often, they have to cope with more challenging catchment areas, as other hon. Members have said.

If we continue down the road of specialisation, we need to ensure that all our schools can become specialists and that they share that expertise with neighbouring schools. We must also be aware that the freedom of choice for parents will always be limited by accessibility and by the space available at a school. The idea of a successful school being allowed to grow is in itself limited. How large can a school become before its size is unacceptable? If there is a growing school, there will be a shrinking school nearby, offering less choice and opportunity to its pupils.

I am concerned about the expansion of faith schools, and I speak as someone who attended a Church of England primary school and who was a governor of a Church of England first school and a Roman Catholic primary school at the same time. I commend the work that church schools have done for many years. As hon. Members have said, in many cases, those schools grew up when no other form of education was available. Church of England schools—whether aided or controlled—operate generally as local schools, taking pupils from the catchment area around them, whatever their religious beliefs.

I recognise that it is difficult to argue that there should be no expansion, or that other faiths should not establish schools. That is the dilemma, but I have great doubts about the wisdom of a policy that could create further divisions in society. If we are to encourage the development of faith schools, we should encourage the development of multi-faith schools.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me that the changes that the Bill introduces will not jeopardise our comprehensive system in the long term.

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6.50 pm

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