Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman mentioned my visit to St. Aidans in his constituency, which works closely with St. John Fisher. They jointly organise sixth form provision, which is a good example of partnership in which we envisage faith schools increasingly taking part. Given the hon. Gentleman's rhetoric about faith schools, I was impressed by the school and was intrigued to discover that the chairman of the governing body is his constituency assistant. She made a good speech that celebrated the value of the faith ethos of the school, which is rather different from the point made by the hon. Gentleman. Is the hon. Gentleman changing the policy of the Liberal Democrats? He has been hostile to the concept of faith schools up to now, but he sounds more accommodating this morning.

Mr. Willis: I object to those comments. The Government are thrusting a policy on us without debate, so I have every right to question and scrutinise it.

It is unfair of the Minister to bring my casework into the debate. That is rather below his usual standards. I have always been at pains to point out that some church schools are brilliant and turn out good products. Where I, Bishop Blackburn and Canon Hall, the chief executive of the Church of England's schools board, stand is fundamentally different from where the Minister stands. I believe that church schools, like those in my constituency, should be run by faiths for communities. They should not be run for faiths, which is fundamentally different.

One positive aspect of religion—and it applies not just to the Church of England or Roman Catholicism, but to Islam, Sikhism and Greek Orthodoxy—is that it brings value systems into schools. I have no objection to using such values as part of a school's ethos, but I have a fundamental objection to the state paying for the promulgation of a faith within a school. That is wholly unacceptable.

10.15 am

Mr. Timms: My understanding of the two excellent schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is that they have a 100 per cent. faith requirement. Is that not associated with the high level of parental commitment that he identified as being at the core of their success?

Mr. Willis: I have already admitted that. I acknowledged that various factors contribute to highly successful schools—mainly middle class catchments, supportive parents and excellent leadership with a clear direction. A faith is not necessary to achieve success. King James's school in Knaresborough is another brilliant school in my constituency with a real sense of purpose and direction achieved through its technology and

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teacher training status and so forth. I am most proud of the fact that my constituency has the largest ecumenical sixth form in Britain.

I disagree with the Secretary of State who said on Second Reading that faith schools should have tangential relationships with each other; it should be a fundamental bringing together of Roman Catholics, Church of England and others. Both schools in my constituency include some youngsters who do not have a faith. It is simply not the case that 100 per cent. have a faith. Surely the Minister would accept that.

We should not be encouraging schools to be run for faiths, but promoting the coming together of faiths. We want far more ecumenical work in schools. We should encourage the multi-faith schools that have been so successful in Liverpool, which is very much a polarised city in terms of religion. The Minister should visit Liverpool to see those schools at work.

The amendment is designed to question the Government's thinking. An excellent research paper points out that support for more faith schools has not come from the public. An NOP survey showed that only one in 10 people were strongly supportive of having more faith schools. The National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association and the Local Government Association have all strongly questioned whether the policy will bring communities together and offer a broad education.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): Although the hon. Gentleman is right to say that those organisations have not supported an increase in faith schools, what about the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities at grass roots level? Those groups want that increase, and in those circumstances it is difficult for the Government to push the process forward. He has overlooked that.

Mr. Willis: I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman, and I regard him as a friend in this House, but I have not disregarded that. I visit Bradford often, and I also visited Oldham and the hon. Gentleman's constituency recently. I accept that elements of those communities have made demands. It would be absolutely wrong to say that the massed ranks of the Muslim community want their children educated in Muslim schools. When I visited Dixons city technology college in Bradford, it was interesting to meet Muslim, Sikh and Hindu youngsters who declared that they and their parents wanted good schools. They were happier to work with their white counterparts in Bradford, rather than being in ethnic ghetto schools, which was the exact phrase one of them used. The evidence is, and the Minister knows it full well, that fewer than one in 10 people regularly go to church or are a member of a single faith group. The national demand that the Prime Minister—

Mr. Lewis: I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman about that last point. As participation in organised religion has undoubtedly declined, it is interesting that the number of parents wanting to send their children

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to faith-based schools has increased considerably. Does that not say something powerful about parental choice?

The Chairman: Order. I have allowed you to range widely, as I think that you have recognised, Mr. Willis. I hope that you will now return to the amendment and move towards a conclusion.

Mr. Willis: You have been most generous, Mr. Pike, but the Committee will appreciate that the issue is important. I am grateful to the Minister for raising that point because it is the big flaw in his argument. The Minister must listen to my answer: if he considers his league tables, he will notice that at the bottom of those tables—which I find quite abhorrent—are a significant number of church schools. That is absolutely true. If the Minister can tell me that there is a clamour from parents who want to go to those schools, I shall sit down, but there is not.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: No, I want to finish making my point. Parents want their kids to go to good schools. I want any community to have access to good schools.

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman did not address the specific point that I raised. Never mind league tables or other diversionary issues: it is a fact that as adult participation in organised religion has declined—there is no dispute about that—the percentage of parents who choose to and wish to send their children to a faith based school has significantly increased. That is a fact.

Mr. Willis: With the greatest respect, the Minister knows that that is not a fact. Neither he nor his Department have any evidence to support it because they have not collected statistics to back it up. The Department said that it thinks that that is the case. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) will jump to his feet now and tell me that the 161 grammar schools—

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): One hundred and sixty-five.

Mr. Willis: The number has increased since our last debate. Significant numbers of children apply to go to the 165 grammar schools, for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman—

Caroline Flint: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: It is getting exciting. I shall give way to the hon. Lady.

Caroline Flint: I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to Rossington high school in my constituency. It is not near the top in any league table for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman, such as the catchment area, which is a poor mining village. However, the school is applying to become a Church of England secondary school.

The hon. Gentleman earlier raised the matter of admissions policies. Will he comment on the statement made by the diocese in response to the question,

    ''Would not a church school be divisive and deny places to children who were not of the faith?''

In reply, the diocese said:

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    ''The ultimate aim is the establishment of an inclusive school that serves all the Rossington community and is a positive force in the school's quest for continual improvement in attainment.''

It also said that although it may be open to children of the faith outside the catchment area, the children of Rossington will come first in terms of the admission policy, whether they are of the faith or not.

Mr. Willis: I could kiss the hon. Lady. She has succinctly supported the amendment, the aim of which is not to stop the expansion of faith schools. I will do that at another time and in another place. What I propose is not controversial—the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) put her finger on the button. I want faith schools of the future to be inclusive, not to become exclusive and to turn away at their gates children of the local community because they are not of that faith or because they are of other faiths. It is abhorrent that a school in a largely Muslim area deliberately sets out to deny Muslim children access to the school. It is equally abhorrent that in one Lancashire Church of England school—I will not name it in Committee, but I shall do so privately if anyone asks me to do so—the policy deliberately sets out to stop people of a different denomination of that faith from getting in because they are not good enough to go to that school. That is not acceptable, and it should not be acceptable to a Labour Government.

The admission forum and the local authority should have the right to tell all their schools that they cannot be entirely exclusive in terms of their faith. As the Cantle report on the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, and as Lord Ouseley recommended, all the schools should be obliged to take children of other faiths and of no faith. If the Minister is right that people are clamouring to get their children into those schools, we should consider why they are doing so. We should ask what is the quality of the school's leadership and what it is they offer, which should be open to all. Youngsters in many constituencies, including yours and mine, Mr. Pike, are denied access to the so-called good schools by an accident of birth. That is not right.

The amendment seeks from the Minister an assurance that in future no church school will deny children access because they are not of that faith or of have faith.

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