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Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). He may not have been here for long, but he made an excellent speech. I also congratulate the Secretary of State. It is said that the best speeches come from the heart; she certainly spoke from the heart, but she also spoke with a deep knowledge of and commitment to the subject.
As Second Church Estates Commissioner, I want to put the Church of England's view. The Church has an historical partnership with the Government, and with local education authorities. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) mentioned that, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) referred to the concordat of 1944. The Church is concerned for the quality of education in all schools, and remains committed to providing education in line with its historical tradition, in all parts of society including areas of need.
The vast majority of the Church of England's 4,700 schools are neighbourhood schools serving their local communities. The Church welcomes opportunities for other faith communities to sponsor schools in the maintained sector, and believes that those too should be inclusive. It therefore believes that it has a distinctive contribution to make to the nation's education.
The heavy demand for places has resulted in some Church secondary schools' having an exclusively Christian intake, but the Church has adopted a national policy of seeking to ensure that all Church schools admit children from other faiths and from no faith. That is to enrich the educational experience of all the pupils, whatever their background.
Developing more Church of England secondary schools will help to ease the overall pressure on places and promote greater inclusivity. In that context, the Church is committed to providing an education on the basis of faith that creates the opportunity for a genuine encounter between different faith groups. Its approach is different from that of schools that do not have a distinctly religious character.
For those reasons, the Church would resist the imposition of a percentage quota of children to be admitted for diversity in new religious schools. A quota, be it 20 per cent. or some other figure, is too prescriptive. It may not be realistic in areas where the make-up of the local community does not support such a quota.
Mr. Chaytor: The Church of England would resist a specific percentage quota but given its commitment to open Church schools to pupils of other faiths or of no faith, would it be prepared to accept a band within which pupils of other faiths could be admitted?
The proposal for a quota fails to address the more widespread issue of how communities can become segregated as a result of housing policies or demography, an issue that relates as much to community schools as to schools with a religious character.
Lord Dearing's report entitled, "The Way Ahead: Church of England Schools in the New Millennium" referred to an appropriate balance in admissions policy between open and foundation places. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred in depth to admissions policy and admissions officers. It is a matter for local government, not for national prescription.
Mr. Gummer: The Secretary of State for Education and Skills was right when she referred to the historic compromise that is the basis on which our schools operate. It is important for the House to understand that for many people the religious content of education is the most important part of education. It may be that some do not believe that it is. I have been fortunate enough to be
It is clear that for some hon. Members the only good is a particular kind of multiculturalism and multiracialisma system that ensures that no one shows any difference from anyone else. I can understand that, but I beg them to accept that for others that is not the paradigm. Many of us believe that people who are secure within their own faith find it easier to reach out to very different people than do those who are insecure in their background and faith. There are very good examples of that. Some of the greatest proponents of tolerance in intolerant societies have had the strongest adherence to their faith.
An important point was made by one Labour Member, who pointed out that by the accident of geography many schools almost end up being exclusively of one faith. Would it not be odd if we allowed schools that were faith based by accident, but excluded schools that were faith based on purpose? Schools that are faith based on purpose often seek to use their faith to extend an understanding of the brotherhood of man through an acceptance of the fatherhood of God. Those schools can often do more than any other in a community to extend the very tolerance that we seek.
To say that it is not acceptable to have a faith-based school is fundamentally contrary to the freedom that we have had in this country for centuries. It says to the whole nation that it is not proper for those with an income below what is required to pay for the education of their children to hold their faith so dearly that they want it to be the basis of that education. I find that a most intolerant position. I know that it upsets the hon. Member for Camden but she must understand that many of us feel that her position is the intolerant one, not ours. We are asking people to be allowed to have a choice even though they are not very rich. That should appeal to her, rather than cause her to object.
Glenda Jackson: The right hon. Gentleman is as ill informed about the name of my constituency as he is about religious history in this country. I represent the seat of Hampstead and Highgate. Many Catholic educational foundations in this country had to provide their own education facilities for children because the prevailing Church of England view at that time was that they should be excluded from British society. Therefore, the argument that religion always informs and enlarges human understanding and is pledged to the greater brotherhood of man is wrong. That is by no means the history of religion in this country.
Mr. Gummer: The fact that I referred to the hon. Lady's constituency by the borough in which it is situated is not an entirely wicked thing to do. Her partial view of history runs totally against the fact that all major social advance in this country has been carried through by those who have been motivated by their religious faith. To deny the influence of Wilberforce, to attack Salisbury, to say that the Churches have not had a fundamental levelling effect shows her ignorance of history. I would not like to have been responsible for her education.
This country is what it is because of the witness of men and women of faith. They have upheld the concept of the brotherhood of man because of their belief in the fatherhood of God. To deny children the right to go to a school where that is the central tenet upon which all depends is a very sad denial of freedom.
Glenda Jackson: I do not accuse the right hon. Gentleman of wickedness, but he certainly does not need me to point out his overweening arrogance. Does he really claim that the advancement of the human situation is entirely and exclusively due to those who have practised a particular religious faith? That is clearly absurd and discounts the extraordinary cruelties and incredible prejudices that have been exercised in the name of various religions. It seems that his argument for the fundamental excellence of a religious education is as ill founded as his knowledge of the name of my constituency.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I thank the hon. Lady for that, although I was not intending to make that particular point. I wanted to say that there is a danger of language getting into excess, and it would be better to calm it down.