Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: It is clear that this is an important and emotive issue. There are tremendous passions on all sides of the argument. It is appropriate that we use a variety of forums for a mature debate. Before addressing the wider issues raised by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough I shall respond to one or two of his specific questions. He asked me about the representation of private companies on the forum. If a private company is involved in a city academy or a city technology college, a representative of that company on its governing body would be eligible to stand for election to the forum, but only in his capacity as a governor of the institution. A head teacher of one those institutions would have the same right to be a member of an admission forum in that capacity, but not as a representative of a private company per se.

Mr. Willis: Could a representative of 3 E's, which runs the Kings College in Guildford, be a member of the forum, not as a head or governor but as one of those other persons

    ''not being members of the LEA who appear to the core members to represent the interests of any section of the local community''?

Mr. Lewis: If it were felt that a private sector company played a significant role in education within the relevant area, although not linked to an individual institution, the forum could decide that it was appropriate to include a representative of that company.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's comment about the reduction in capital liability of voluntary-aided schools from 15 per cent. to 10 per cent., there is a legitimate debate to be had about whether that is a desirable objective. We made it clear in our election manifesto that that was our intention. It is unfair to accuse us of not allowing or encouraging any form of debate in the House. The measure will be implemented through a regulatory reform order procedure. There will be the opportunity to have a significant and comprehensive debate.

I turn now to faith schools. Unless I missed it, both hon. Members who spoke ignored one important issue. Since 1997, a number of the requests to become voluntary-aided schools and to move into the maintained sector have come from schools that were operating in the private sector without any requirement to deliver the national curriculum and without being subject to the same accountability, transparency and standards. That is an important factor to take into account in the context of the debate. Many parents choose to send their children to private sector schools because of their religious or cultural ethos. Surely it is good if pupils attending those schools return to the state sector. It is in the best

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interest of pupils to have access to the same curriculum, standards and inspection regimes and, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, to feel part of the family of schools in the community.

It is right to find ways of bringing pupils back into the maintained sector. We should be realistic and honest enough to acknowledge that parents who choose to send their children to private faith schools would be unlikely to send them to schools in the maintained sector if the faith-based option were not available to them. Parents' beliefs and values are important, so maintaining faith-based schools within the state sector provides a viable and valued option.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is extremely knowledgeable about the whole education sector and he is an individual of great integrity. I say that not just to butter him up. However, an intellectual inconsistency is evident in what he and others say about faith schools.

Fundamental criticisms have been expressed in Committee and elsewhere about faith schools, which have existed for many years and made a massive contribution to education in this country. Arguing for change in a big way amounts to asserting that faith-based schools as historically and currently constituted have made and are making a negative contribution to society. If faith schools are making a negative contribution to community cohesion and relationships between people, it would be far more honest—and politically brave—to come off the fence and admit it.

Single faith schools most concern the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. As I understand it, the majority of faith schools through history have been predominantly single faith. It is perfectly respectable and reasonable to criticise such schools on the basis that the concept of a single faith school is negative and undermines the very fabric of the society that we all want to live in. That is a consistent argument, but it is inconsistent to maintain that position while acknowledging that some single faith schools are good.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the Minister for his kind comments.

I shall try to explain my views in a nutshell. The Minister has mistaken my position and that of my party. I want children who are not linked to a particular faith or who have other faiths to have access to good faith schools. I want the Government to ensure that no faith school can, through its admissions policy, discriminate against children of other faiths or of no faith. Kids in my and other constituencies should have access to those schools irrespective of their particular faiths. The Minister seems unable fully to appreciate that concept.

Mr. Lewis: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but he should understand that some parents choose a particular school for their children precisely because it is a single faith school or predominantly of one faith. That is a significant part of a school's attraction to a parent. Whether we believe it is right or reasonable for parents to choose on that basis, we

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must respect the principle of parental choice. Parents choose a school for a range of reasons.

I agree that it is wrong to present all single faith schools as good, or to claim that they are the only schools with a strong ethos, sound principles and good leadership. That is nonsense. Some faith schools are excellent and some are under-performing. However, if the hon. Gentleman is arguing that as many levers as possible should be put into the system to prevent the creation of single faith schools, he is effectively denigrating their contribution over many years to this country's education as negative, destructive and divisive. If that is what he is arguing, I respect his position, but I cannot agree with him.

Mr. Willis: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lewis: In a moment. I disagree with that analysis of the contribution that faith schools have made to the development of the British education system. Evidence suggests that such schools have met parental preferences and provided young people with high quality education. It is wrong to put those schools in a box labelled ''bad for society, undermines the fabric and cohesion of society''.

Mr. Willis: The record will show that I have never uttered any such comments about faith schools. I have been at pains to point out that some faith schools are excellent. Why cannot the Minister understand that the purpose of the amendment is to prevent faith schools from excluding youngsters of no faith or of other faiths? Parents in a local community who want their children to go to the good church school should be able to send them there even though they do not share the particular faith. That is my point, not that faith schools are bad schools or harmful to society.

Mr. Lewis: I realise that the hon. Gentleman did not say that. I am explaining my view of his perception of the historical and current contribution of single faith schools. The clear corollary of his and his party's position is that faith schools undermine the community and society that most of us want to create.

I want to make another point, though it does not relate to anything that the hon. Gentleman has said in Committee, and I respect the fact that he has not used these arguments. I disagree with the people who jumped on the bandwagon after 11 September and the summer disturbances in northern towns—including those in the constituency of our Chairman—and used those incidents to justify their opposition to the principle of faith-based education. They used current events to justify an intellectual position that they had held before. The hon. Gentleman, to his credit, has not used that argument as a justification for the position that he and his party hold.

11 am

Dr. Kumar: I am not one of those who jumped on the bandwagon. As a liberal humanist all my life, I have seen the danger of faith schools. I understand the Minister's point, but the recent examples that we have seen in Northern Ireland have worried me. The

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division between the Catholic and Protestant communities is an example on our doorstep.

Mr. Brady: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. We are having an important debate about crucial issues that prompt strong feelings on both sides of the Committee. The matters must be dealt with, whether now or later. I make no criticism of the Minister, who has given a full response to what was a full opening speech by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I spoke briefly in the debate, and I do not think that the Government Whip or any other Member could believe that Opposition Members have attempted to delay proceedings this morning.

However, under the programme motion that was agreed first thing this morning, a knife will fall in approximately 19 minutes. Given the way that discussions are proceeding, I would be surprised if clauses 45 to 48 and schedule 4 were not left unconsidered by the Committee. Important amendments have been tabled for consideration; I draw attention to amendment No. 233, which deals with the concerns of the state boarding school sector. If we do not reach such amendments, the Committee will have had no opportunity to consider adequately this part of the Bill.

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