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Caroline Flint: I attended St. Mary's Church of England school in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Following his point about racial segregation, does he agree that there is a danger, given the events in the north-west last summer, in treating faith schools exclusively as the problem, while ignoring all the other issues to do with people's confidence about their cultural identity and religion; and that in our multicultural society we should place value on all people's cultural faiths and beliefs and not only those that have dominated this country for so many centuries? Is it not important to consider the wider issues about why dissent between ethnic groups within communities occurs, rather than blaming faith and faith schools in a knee-jerk reaction?
Dr. Cable: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We were enjoined earlier on not to draw international comparisons, but there is an interesting comparison between this country and France, which has very alienated, segregated Muslim minorities in very large groups, even though the schooling system has been entirely based on secular French republican principles. The problems there have nothing to do with how the school system is configured.
The hon. Lady made a very penetrating intervention a few minutes ago when she said that many of the objectives of the supporters of the new clause could be better achieved in other ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) corrected her in part, but it is certainly the case that there are many different ways in which the state or LEAs,
The Government are very inventive in generating new categories of schools and rewarding them with status and money. Perhaps in areas where segregation is developing to a dangerous extent in the school system, they could pilot a scheme whereby a faith school that is particularly inclusive could be recognised and rewarded in a positive way. That approach would be much more likely to succeed than one that is based on coercion and quota.
Clive Efford: I rise to support the new clauses tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). In doing so, I want to make my position clear. Some hon. Members have been disingenuous in suggesting that those who support the new clauses are against faith schools. I am not against faith schools. I spent my early school years in a Catholic school.
I was brought up as a Catholic and, although I have no faith now, I also spent some time as a governor of a Catholic school in my constituency. I was able to provide a great deal of help and assistance to the school in that period. I was pleased to do so, and would be pleased to help again in the future, if the occasion arose.
Some of the interventions in the debate seem to me to have missed the point. The debate is about the education provided by faith schools, not faith itself. When people exercise choice and send their children to faith schools, they do so after considering the quality of the education offered by the school, not only the faith to which it belongs. Some very well-heeled individuals bus their children halfway across London to faith schools. They do not do that, in the first instance, because the schools are religious. They do it because the performance of the schools in question is very high. We must bear that in mind during this discussion.
We have been told that a 25 per cent. quota for faith schools would undermine the ethos of those schools. In an intervention, we were told that the Catholic authorities recommend that 10 per cent. of pupils in Catholic schools should come from non-Catholic or non-religious backgrounds. If the faiths are making it clear that they would accept and welcome pupils from different backgrounds, why should we stand in their way? How can we argue that that is against the ethos of those schools?
Mr. Goodman: Does not the hon. Gentleman appreciate that, for many faith schools, there is a difference between taking 10 per cent. of pupils from different backgrounds, and the much larger proportionup to 80 per cent., if I read new clause 1 rightlythat is being proposed? In the first instance, the proportion of non-faith children would be a small minority, but some faith schools would not be able to maintain their ethos with minority intakes that are much larger.
Clive Efford: The new clauses propose that a consultation process be held if the proportion involved goes beyond 25 per cent. Local accountability is a factor, and a point that has been overlooked throughout this debate is that LEAs are accountable to their local communities.
If an LEA or a school organisation committee acts outside the interests of a faith school or of the community that it represents, people will be able to take account of that in future elections. They will be able to make representations through the faith schools, which also belong to the school organisation committees, to ensure that local accountability is preserved when decisions are taken. I therefore do not think that the fears described by the hon. Gentleman are well founded.
We have heard that religious schools perform better than other schools. I see no evidence for that contention. Some excellent religious schools perform extremely well, but yesterday's Ofsted report stated that the 25 per cent. of all schools that are religious-based make up 30 per cent. of the top-performing schools.
I do not suggest for a moment that the secondary school of which I was one of the governors adheres to the policy, but all hon. Members know that selection takes place in many religious schools. Sometimes it takes place before pupils arrive at the door of the school applying for a place. The selection takes place in the churches and religious institutes where the priestor whoever it might begives a pupil a supporting statement to prove that that child is a practising member of the congregation, and that application is being made for attendance at a school on that basis.
Selection is clearly a factor in the performance of those schools. I reject the idea that, if those schools were to take 25 per cent. of their pupils from the general community around them, it would affect or undermine their performance. I do not accept that. The schools that I know about, which are very good and provide an excellent education for their pupils, would not be threatened by the requirement that they take 25 per cent. of pupils who are not of their denomination.
The issue of choice has been raised. What we have heard constantly from hon. Members who oppose the new clauses shows that choice means exclusion. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) asked how much choice there is for parents and children who live near a denominational school, but who do not share that denomination. Where is their choice? They can only choose a school outside their community because they are excluded from the nearest school. That is not choice.
If we really supported choice, we should support the new clauses. They would let parents decide whether they want to send their child to a faith school or to another school. It would then be for the education authority to determine whether the 25 per cent. quota should apply if there were not enough applicants.
Mr. Hoban: There has been much debate about choice and the geographical proximity of the pupil to the school. Does the hon. Gentleman think that parents in my constituency, who want their child to attend a Catholic school, for example, are denied choice by virtue of the fact that the nearest Catholic secondary school is either 10 miles down the road in Portsmouth or 10 miles down the road in Southampton?
Clive Efford: I am not clear about the hon. Gentleman's point. If people do not live close to a school of the denomination of their choice, perhaps their choice should be whether they move closer to the school.
If someone is part of a community, but the nearest school is not of their denomination and applies 100 per cent. religiosity in its entrance policy, that person is excluded from their local school. That is not choiceit is the prevention of choice.
Caroline Flint: The issue of parental choice is difficult. I have many casesI am sure that my hon. Friend does, tooof people who apply to their local school, which is non-denominational but still oversubscribed, so the LEA tells them that their children must attend their second or third choice. Arguments about choice are difficultthey also apply to the non-denominational sector: children cannot attend their closest school under the current arrangements.
Clive Efford: I fully accept that point. My education authority is bordered by one that applies selection in many of its secondary schools, so the problem is acute for me. Many parents turn up at my surgery at the time of secondary transfer because they have not been given their first choice. The child has taken what we call the "Bexley test" and has failed to get into the school they want, so they come back to my area. Those parents have a perception of the quality of the education their child will receive. That is the point of my argument. When schools are oversubscribedwhether or not they are religiousit is because of the quality of the education they offer, not because of their faith.
I realise that the debate has gone on for a long time and many of the issues that I raised have been touched on before, but I have one brief point to make. I represent a community that has been ravaged by racism. I represent the constituency of Eltham, where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, and I am extremely concerned as to the direction we are taking as regards segregation in our schools.
I organise a community group which meets regularly. We discuss racism and we tackle the local authority, the education authority and others on what they are doing to challenge itespecially among young people. When some school inspectors attended our meeting, they told us that in many parts of my constituencyas in many inner-city areasthere are exclusively white communities, and almost no ethnic minority pupils in the schools.
One of the problems was the children's lack of experience of people of other faiths or ethnic minority groups because they were not mixing with such people on a day-to-day basis. The terms that they use for people of other races and their attitude towards them is affected because they do not come across people from different backgrounds in their daily lives. By encouraging more faith schools without encouraging more integration, we would be pouring petrol on the problem.
My local education authority has done much to deal with the problem and I commend it for that. I do not want the Bill to put into reverse that excellent work, albeit for the best of intentions. That is why I will support the new clause.