Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.[Mr. Watson.]
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I believe that it is the right of parents to send their children to good local schools, and that that right is being inhibited and blocked by the growth of single-faith schools. The very fact that such schools exist must colour the perception of the Government's education policy, and, unfortunately, sets the context for the education White Paper. Selection, privilege and inequality are not future fears but today's reality.
I intend to debate the expansion of faith schools, not whether they should exist. Many such schools, especially at primary level, operate in an admirable, non-sectarian way. My daughter attends an excellent Church of England primary school that is local to us. I should also say that I enjoy good relations with the hard-working clergy of all faiths on my patch, all of whom have chosen to walk the hard road in my constituency. Not only do I respect them, but my value systema tolerant, liberal, secular oneinsists that I respect every person's right to the belief of their choice, providing that they do not interfere with the beliefs of others.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I know some of the areas in my hon. Friend's constituency that he speaks of. I am pleased that he is relaxed about the fact that some 25 per cent. of state primaries are Church schools. Is he aware that the Church of England in particular would like a doubling in the number of faith secondary schools? Does he believe, as I do, that that would be calamitous for community cohesion, and that in the very long run we might find ourselves in a position not dissimilar to that in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Allen : My hon. Friend makes some sensible points which I shall come to later in my speech. If you have a problem, then stop digging. We may be aggravating the problem rather than attempting to deal with some of the unintended consequences of the existing situation.
There are two major risks from expansion of faith schools. The first is an increase in social and religious segregation in an already divided society, and the second is an increase in educational inequality, which has been the curse of the English education system for hundreds of years. By the way, I am pleased to take interventions from colleagues who do not wish to make speeches but would like to take part in a mature conversation on this difficult issue. I believe that there is sufficient time to do that.
14 Feb 2006 : Column 368WH
More and more parents and carers who reject religious truth tests do not wish their children to be educated at a school operated by a single-faith organisation or to have their choice reduced. The Government are forcing them to bus their children long distances from the local school or to go private, if they can afford it. We expect single-faith schools not to respect the autonomy of children in the vital matter of choosing their own religion and their own value commitments, but the Government and the state should not be party to that. Parents may instil their religious ideology in their children in private, but it is not the job of a few well-placed individuals to use the state or publicly funded schools to instil an exclusive religious faith in children.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that it is qualitatively less important for parents to choose a faith school than it is for them to choose a non-faith school. He is complaining that they may have to bus their children miles to a non-faith school, but he does not appear to recognise that in my constituency, for example, they would have not only to bus but to ferry children to a faith high school, as there are no such schools on the Isle of Wight.
Mr. Allen : The hon. Gentleman makes my point forcefully, particularly given that a choice between a faith school and a secular school can extend only to people of faith, whereas those who wish to send their children to a secular school do not have such a choice. They can send their children only to a secular school, unless they are prepared to pretend that their religious commitments are other than they are.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has missed at least some of the point? There is an inherent inequality in the way that the system works, in that no community school rejects a child on the basis of their religion, yet over-subscribed faith-based schools do reject children on the basis of their parents' lack of religious belief. The situation can never be equal or fair while that is allowed to continue.
Mr. Allen : I had intended to say that in my reply to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), but I was not able to muster the eloquence of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris).
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the dignified manner in which he is conducting this debate. I want to follow the last point. At Bishop Stopford comprehensive secondary school in Kettering, religious criteria apply only if there is over-subscription. In practice, that is the case every year, but the school has more than 1,400 pupils. Do the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the expansion of faith schools apply to that school in my constituency?
Mr. Allen : Unfortunately, as I am not a Minister of State for Education and Skills, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a full reply in that regard, but one of the key
14 Feb 2006 : Column 369WH
aspects is that people who have a secular viewthe majority of people in the UKdo not have the choice of sending their children to a faith school unless they lie, whereas people of any religious persuasion are able to send their children to religious or secular schools. Therefore, choice is a one-sided coin.
Another point is that up to 90 per cent. or even more of the funding for religious schools is from tax revenue. Many taxpayers can send their children only to secular schools, whereas those who have a faith can also send them to faith schools. The sense of being forced to pay for other people's education and as a taxpayer being unable to send their child to the school of their choice or to their local school is an affront to many.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that parents who send their children to faith schools are taxpayers, and, in fact, pay twice? They pay through their taxes and then through any contribution they make via the Church.
Mr. Allen : The logical extension of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that people who wish to send their children to schools that are segregated on religious grounds should pay for the privilege. That position is more extreme even than mine.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that parents who are devout and therefore wish to have their child brought up in a school with a strong religious ethos should be able to exercise that choice only if they are wealthy, and that if they are not wealthy it is just too bad and they must have their children educated in the way that he sees fit?
Mr. Allen : Let us not forget that there are devout people who are not Protestant or Catholic but from other religions. Indeed, there are people who believe with at least as much sincerity in secular and humanist values. I would argue that they make up a higher percentage than any religious sect. However, many of those people are not able to send their children to faith schools; so again, it is a partial choice. That is the current problem. I would imagine and hope that no colleagues in the room would wish to invent the current situation of faith schools. It is uncomfortable and difficult for those who believe in universal education, just as it is difficult for those who are deeply religious, particularly those of religions not adequately represented in faith schools. The question is whether we make the current situation worse by expanding faith schools or try to address the problems as they are presented to us.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate; it is the first time that we have had a debate on this subject in Westminster Hall during all the years I have been in this House. I listened carefully to what he said about choice. Choice clashes with a bigger principle in which we also believe: the value of multiculturalism. I hope that he and I agree with other hon. Members on that. The segregation inherent in
14 Feb 2006 : Column 370WH
creating more faith schools clashes directly and heavily with the principle of multiculturalism and there are danger signs if we go down that road.
We have already seen what happens: there are divisions, and throughout the country pockets of segregated communities are emerging, whether they are Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. The emergence of faith schools in those communities will create further segregation and further division rather than unifying this country under one banner and the values of the country itself. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a serious situation and will be dangerous for all of us in the future?
Mr. Allen : I have had conversations with the Minister about the education White Paper, all of which have been extremely positive and constructive. One thing that I have said to herand I am not giving away any secretsis that if we listen to colleagues in Parliament from all parties we will end up with better legislation. In many ways, the issue of faith schools is a microcosm of that. We are hearing from throughout Parliament, even in this small gathering, some very interesting and pertinent points. I am thinking of the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar). I shall come on to the damaging impact of segregation on our society in a little while.
To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) about whether it is just wealthy people who can go to faith schools, I have to say that despite all my reservationsabout secondary faith schools in particularit might be worth it if it subsidised a dynamic religious mission. The things that all religions have in their commandments, the words of their prophets or whatever, might lead them in their religious fervour to a crusade to educate the poor in the United Kingdom, which would go into the heart of the inner city and out to the estates that I represent. I would be on weak moral ground if that were the case, but I come from the most educationally deprived constituency in the UKfor example, it sends the fewest youngsters to university of any constituencyand the massive educational under-attainment of Nottingham, North is shunned by faith schools.
Indeed, faith schools outside my constituency suck many of the few high attainers out of my patch, compounding the underachievement of the hard-working local schools, head teachers, teachers, parents and youngsters. The religious philosophy evident is less a matter of "love thy neighbour" and more "the devil take the hindmost." Creaming off the talented and masquerading behind subsequently inflated results is not acceptable. "Suffer little children to come unto me, but only if they have a letter from their minister or priest" is not the basis of religious conviction in education.
Mr. Turner : I do not inquire into the faith of other hon. Members, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman told the House of his faith, or lack of it, or absence of it, before we arrived, but I am interested in the fact that he feels that his constituents suffer because they are forced to go outside his constituency if they want to go to a faith school. He shakes his head, but that seems to be the implication of what he says. It is, of course, a pity that
14 Feb 2006 : Column 371WH
there are no faith schools in his constituencyI hope that he does not mind my saying that. Is he saying that if parents want to send their child to a faith school, it is better for the child to be forced to go to a non-faith school in Nottingham, North than to a faith school outside the constituency? Is he saying rather, as I suspect he is, that children are there for the benefit of schools and to provide a leavening of the lack of educational achievement in his constituency, and not that schools are there for the benefit of children?
Mr. Allen : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to lower the tone of what has been a very good exchange so far. Of course I would like all the young people in my constituency to go to a decent schoolnot just one or two who can pass the truth tests of particular faith schools, which do not extend to all faiths and do not extend to those of no faith at all.
I turn to the claim that faith schools achieve better results than non-faith schools. The briefest examination shows that the intake of religious schools, like the intake of grammar schools, is the primary reason for their success. For example, more than a third of pupils in the average secondary school in Nottingham, North are eligible for free school mealsthe indicator of deprivation often used in the education systemcompared with 11.6 per cent. at the equivalent Church of England secondary. The trend is the same in the area of special educational needs. On average, 16 per cent. of religious secondary school pupils are SEN pupils, compared with 19 per cent. at non-religious secondary schools. The truth is that religious, and particularly Christian schools, have a more middle-class intake than non-religious schools. There is no side to what I say; it is just an explanation. It is just a fact, which is what we ought to be dealing with. That is why those schools get better results.
David Taylor : My hon. Friend has instanced two ways in which faith schools may differ from other schools in their vicinity. Would he add a third, in that they are insulated from the problems that other comprehensives have to deal with? They tend to take far fewer children with behavioural difficulties than non-faith schools in the vicinity. Is that the case in Nottingham, North?
Mr. Allen : The statistics bear that out. I have a ream of statistics, which I do not want to bore hon. Members with, but the statistics are there none the less and I have quoted some of them to support my case.
Mr. Gibb : Does the hon. Gentleman genuinely believe that the high results achieved by many faith schools are solely owing to their intake? Is there nothing whatever about the ethos of the school, the way that it educates children or the discipline established there that contributes to higher standards?
Mr. Allen : I do not think it is the sole reason, but it is the primary reason. I shall come to the question of ethos a little later and hopefully I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's points.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op):I wonder whether my hon. Friend heard the Church of England's education spokesman
14 Feb 2006 : Column 372WH
yesterday. In analysing the results of a recent study about the intake of faith schools, he said that the way through the dilemma, which was keenly felt by the Church of England authorities, was for Church schools to accept local authority admission schemes. Does that tell my hon. Friend, as it does me, that we should be putting local education authorities back at the heart of education policy at a local level?
Mr. Allen : If we want good schools for everyone, not just some good schools for those who can find a way to get into them, what my hon. Friend says has a lot of merit. I know that through the process of debate about the education White Paper my hon. Friend's view is strengthening, which I welcome.
Dr. Harris : I urge the hon. Gentleman to respond to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) by saying that there are massive statistical differencesa huge number of data pointsin the intake with regard to special educational needs and care leavers. Given that the Government have done so much in those areas, it must be a cause for concern that that is happening. There is no evidenceit has been sought in academic studiesthat there is anything in the ethos, the water or the prayers that contributes to that. The issue is selection in faith admissions, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make that clear.
Mr. Allen : I will gladly come to that point, if colleagues allow me to get there.
The already struggling community schools are further victimised by being denied an intake of middle-class pupils. They predominantly serve those who have not got into faith schoolsoften children from less advantaged homes and from racial and/or linguistic minorities. There is evidence from the USAnot that we need to go to the USA; there is evidence from our own comprehensive systemthat when the proportion of children from economically poor families in a class passes the 25 per cent. barrier, performance nosedives. By spreading the presence of those children more widely, total performance can be improved, as can the performance of those children.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): From what the hon. Gentleman is saying it seems that performance is all. Does he concur that there are other experiences in a school that are just as important as gaining top academic performance?
Mr. Allen : I would be loth to break totally with the new Labour indoctrination which I have gladly undergone in the past decade and say that results, targets and impositions are not everything. However, given my constituency and my background, I believe that, not only is the non-targetable stuff nice to have, it helps to create human beings who are capable and who have the social skills to take advantage of the education on offer and then make advances academically. It is not an either/or situation. People understand where I come from on the question of teaching social behaviour alongside literacy and numeracy and so on. That toolkitthat empathy on a one-to-one levelwhether it be through sport, arts or other areas, is one of the greatest gifts that education can provide and, coincidentally, raises educational attainment as well.
14 Feb 2006 : Column 373WH
The improved ethos cited by the Government, the Government-in-waiting and others as a reason for the expansion of faith schools is a natural side-effect of their middle-class intake. Of course a school with better-off pupils will benefit from pupils with good behaviour and the right level of social skills. That is exactly what is lacking in constituencies such as mine. That situation needs to be put right and not aggravated by admissions policy.
I hope to see the Minister this afternoon about the very issue of teaching social behaviour in primary schools and teaching parenting and social skills in secondary schools in Nottingham. The presence or absence of that teaching is central to future academic performance. Particularly disproportionately in non-faith schools, its absence undermines the ability to create the very ethos that, along with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, I think should be part of as many schools as possible.
An Ofsted spokesman recently told The Times Educational Supplement that
"selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well-behaved children from stable backgrounds."
The Government quite rightly attach much importance to a school's ethos. To say that a positive ethos can be achieved only through religion is absurd and quite frankly insulting to those of usthe majority of the British publicof no faith and to the majority who teach and work in non-faith schools. It is sometimes possible to listen to this debate and imagine that those from non-religious backgrounds are a rampant minority jumping up and down and making a lot of noise, when, actually, most people in the UK do not feel strongly about religion and do not send their children to faith schools. Those schools attract so much attention, as well as attracting so much taxpayers' money, that one would be forgiven for thinking that the argument had become slightly out of perspective.
A school's ethos is not merely a product of the religious or philosophical viewpoint of its staff and pupils; it is based on shared human values. Teachers in non-religious community schools frequently have strong ethical and moral values with which to support their pupils. In the city of Nottingham, there is a non-faith schoolnot in my constituencycalled Middleton primary school, which was praised by Ofsted for its
"this includes their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Pupils show a high level of maturity . . . They enjoy taking responsibility for creating a harmonious community in which everyone helps each other. Older pupils say that their first responsibility is to set a good example for younger ones and they do so very well . . . The supportive atmosphere means that each child feels very special."
We can see the heart of decent, civilised human valueshelping each other and building a better communityin action, and not necessarily in the context of a faith school.
Colleagues who support faith schools and their expansion are entitled to their view, but they should be careful not to see faith schools as the only route to a
14 Feb 2006 : Column 374WH
decent ethos and education, because that is not the case. Middleton primary school has children and teachers from between 20 and 30 different faith groups. Let us think of the benefit to those children and what they accrue from learning about other faiths and cultures from such a young age. What are the chances of those children growing up to be dogmatic and intolerant of others after such a positive early life experience?
Often the schools that parade faith are single-faith schools. They escape the national curriculum on religious education and they can, and do, deny a rounded multi-faith education to pupils. That ossifies the monocultural viewsoften of the older generation and community leaderswhich are often the opposite of those of the younger generation, many of whom will be forced to attend minority-faith schools.
On the subject of ethics, I have to wonder at the ethical practices employed by certain faith schools. The head teacher of an Oldham Church of England schooltypical of manywas reported in The Times Educational Supplement on 22 June 2001 as
"happy to admit that many 'Church of England' parents actually attend services with the express purpose of winning a place at his school."
It was a badge of honour that people lied to get into his school. In a June 2000 NOP poll, 8 per cent. of parents admitted attending church just to get their children into a faith school. The real figures are probably higher. If someone is a caring parent, desperate to get the best for their child, they might take that route.
Mr. Purchase : This is such an important point. We hear that claim so often: "I want the best for my child and therefore I reserve the right to send my childto pay for my childto go to this school rather than that school." Always and everywhere, in those circumstances, that means that some other child is disadvantaged in order that an advantage can be gained. I hope that my hon. Friend will deal comprehensively with that and put to rest once and for all the nonsense that only so many parents want the best for their children. We all want the best for our children and we all want good schools in our neighbourhoods. That is the point. I hope that he will get to that right now.
Mr. Allen : I hope that I have been getting to that right the way through my remarks, but I support the passion with which my hon. Friend speaks. The issue is not about denying somebody else a good education; it is about letting everybody have a good education. Although all constituencies may not be in the same position as mine, many colleagues have areas in their constituencies that they feel are at least as deprived as my constituency. We all want the best for those children. That is what Ministers and the Opposition want, and together I am sure that we can find a way through the problem. At the moment, we often deny youngsters the chance of going to their local school unless we make liars out of parentsforcible, conscripted, pretend armies of believers. I do not know whether people in the various Churches tick boxes as we do in Government, saying, "Let's pretend that we've got thousands and thousands of believers, because we've got an active school." That is not why those parents go to a particular church.
David Taylor : Will my hon. Friend congratulate our Government on making an enormous number of huge
14 Feb 2006 : Column 375WH
educational improvements in the past nine years, the most recent being to forbideffectivelythe interviewing of parents who want to send their children to particular schools? Although many faith secondary schools may not be selective by intent, are they not selective in effect? Is not that more difficult to tackle?
Mr. Allen : I take second place to no one in praising the Government for what they have done in education since 1997. Speaking about my own constituency, the effort made by successive ministerial teams, the civil service and my local education authority cannot be qualified. It has been magnificent and made a real impact on the life chances of many youngsters in my constituency. I do not raise this debate to denigrate what the Government have done. On the contrary, I wish to encourage them to go further, so that the life chances of some children in my constituency are extended to all children. My argument this morning is onejust oneway in which that can be done.
I am not a great believer in opinion polls, but I shall throw in a few numbers. A recent NOP poll found that 79 per cent. of parents thought that discriminating on religious grounds was as bad as discriminating on the grounds of race or accent. On August 23 2005, an ICM poll showed that 64 per cent. of respondents agreed with the statement that
and the New Statesman reported that 96 per cent. of its readers opposed faith schools, although considering the readership of that publication, I am surprised that the figure was not much higher.
Picking up some points made earlier, I turn to the issue of so-called parental choice. In reality, there is no real choice for parents in my constituency. One cannot choose to go to a school that will not admit on the grounds of religion or lack of religion. Those are the ethics of a private club, not the ethics of decent schooling.
Mr. Allen : The hon. Gentleman says that we can, and I shall be pleased to give way to him to tell me how.
Mr. Turner : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because of course a school will admit any child up to the point at which the school is over-subscribed. May I take the opportunity to ask him whether he really meant in response to his hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) that it is a zero sum game? That hon. Gentleman suggested that for every child who is advantaged, there is another child who is disadvantaged. Surely it is the intention of the Government and everybody in this House to create more good schools and more places in good schools. So it is not necessarily a zero sum game.
Mr. Allen : I hope that we would all agree that we want an abundance of good schools everywhere and every school to be a good school. That is fundamental to my beliefs on education: there should not be some good schools, whereby if one is lucky enough, one can get in,
14 Feb 2006 : Column 376WH
leaving behind sink schools which may be created by creaming off the best youngsters; there should be a global view of where good schools should be. They should be in every constituency in every area, and not the product of a private members' club arrangement, whereby certain children are allowed in either because of the way that they look, their race and the way that they talk, orthe one that we still have on our statute booksbecause of the religious faith that their parents profess.
It is amazing that we are having this debate in the 21st century. If we just changed the term from "religion" to "race", and put ourselves in the position of those who want racial segregation, we could almost be transported back to the deep south or to the UK's education system 150 years ago. It is unacceptable and intolerable in this day and age.
Paul Rowen : I really must challenge the hon. Gentleman on that statement, because it is not borne out by reality. Does he not accept that many faith schools are multicultural and multi-faith? I have worked in Bradford and Oldham, where there are problems, but they lie not in the Church schools but in others, where segregation has been brought about by race. The centre of Bradford is predominantly Muslim, and the outer schools are white. They are ordinary so-called community schools, and the choice agenda has allowed that situation to operate. The Church schools in Bradford are mixed, unlike the so-called community schools.
Mr. Allen : I started my remarks pointedly emphasising that in faith schools so many people are working so hard andin my opinionmoving in the right direction. I do not wish to damn all faith schools; nor do I wish to abuse anyone who works in a faith school. We are where we are, and the question is whether we take it further and encourage more faith schools. We need to speak up about that, because it is taking place outwith the influence of Members of Parliament.
This issue prompted the first occasion in 15 years on which I voted against my parliamentary leadership, because an expansion of faith schools was taking place outside the legislative framework. It was being done by Executive diktat, and it was only because several colleaguesforemost among whom was my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson)spotted what was going on that we called a debate. As one could perhaps argue with regard to police and health service reforms and several other areas, Parliament was just a bystander.
When we see that taking place, it is our responsibility to speak up and to claim and reclaim Parliament's rightful territory of debating and agreeing to those issues, rather than having key personalities decide that that is the way that we are going to go with our education policy. Let us have the debate. That is why I am glad to have this debate and to open up the conversation to all points of viewall valid points of viewthat are expressed this morning.
Dr. Kumar : I praise the way in which my hon. Friend is conducting this debate and what he says. I want to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on the multicultural spirit being
14 Feb 2006 : Column 377WH
created in our schools, by raising another example in which that spirit is not succeeding. There are Muslim schools, Hindu schools and Sikh schools in which I do not see any multiculturalism emerging. In Muslim schools, 99.999 per cent. of the pupils are MuslimI suspect that it is 100 per cent. That is similarly happening in Sikh schools and it is going to happen in Hindu schools. I do not see a spirit of multiculturalism emerging in those schools, and I have serious concerns about that, because it will create problems 15 or 20 years down the road. Bradford may have been successful in creating that spirit, but so far I do not see any evidence of the multicultural spirit in such schools.
Mr. Allen : My hon. Friend anticipates a further remark later in my speech. I add one point: I was fortunate enough to be drawn No. 1 in Northern Ireland questions last week, and I raised with the Minister the question of what might have happened when the troubles began some 30 years ago had all new schools been non-denominational. What would have happened if an integrated schooling system had slowly developed, year after year, over 30 years? Surely, we would have been in a far healthier position than we are now. Young Catholics and Protestants would have met each other day to day, sat next to each other, played in the playground, fought, argued and talked. As a result, they would have realised that the other kids were just like the kids down their street. My worrymy hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland touched on itis that if we carry on building up faith schools, in 30 years' time we will regret not having taken action to prevent the problems that I have described. It is in our gift to take that action right now, and that is an onerous responsibility on all hon. Members present.
In education, as we know, choice for one group can often come at the expense of choice for another group. As faith schools choose their pupilsnot the other way roundtheir proliferation will decrease choice for the majority of parents, unless they are prepared to pretend to join a religion. That pretend piety is a skill or tool that is almost always employed by middle-class parents, who get to know their local priest or vicar. As usual, it is the most deprived families, such as those in my constituency, who lose out. A May 2003 report by the Education and Skills Committee, which was based on evidence from numerous experts, stated:
"In practice, parents have found that the reality of school diversity and choice can act to limit rather than expand their options for their children's education."
That leads me to the issue of community cohesion, which has been raised by many colleagues from both sides of the House. Faith schools can seriously damage the health of the communities that they are meant to serve. Those in poor areas often serve few local pupils, with middle-class pupils travelling from other areas to attend. A 2005 study by the IRIS think-tankthe Institute for Research in Integrated Strategiesfound one faith school at which 10 per cent. of pupils were eligible for free school meals, in an area where 45 per cent. of local children were eligible.
School is the primary means by which children mix with one another. The other children they meet at school are the people they will grow up with, who will influence
14 Feb 2006 : Column 378WH
them and shape their outlook on the world. Schools that are segregated on any basis, including religion, serve only to narrow children's view of the world and of those who are different from them. Such a policy creates religious apartheid in schools and pulls up the drawbridgesit is a policy of retreat from the multicultural, multi-ethnic society that is our future. We tamper with that future at our peril.
I fundamentally believe that it is not acceptable to segregate children on the grounds of race. If anyone disagrees with that and feels that we should do so, I would gladly give way.
Mr. Turner : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Turner : I am not going to defend that view, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that much of the white flight from our cities is the result of people wishing to achieve a better standard of education? That has the effect of segregating pupils on the grounds of race and by the residential neighbourhood in which they live.
Mr. Allen : I have no doubt that there are people who move to find better schools for their children. That is their right and they are entitled to do that. However, my question is whether it is rightas a matter of Government policy, not market economicsto encourage that development. No one took up my offer that we should segregate youngsters by race.
How about class? Should we deliberately segregate our youngsters by class and have only certain classes of children in certain schools?
Mr. Allen : The hon. Gentleman agrees that we should not do that. So why do my Governmenta Labour Governmentcontinue to allow, and indeed promote, segregation on the grounds of religion? Such an approach gives rise to the belief that "You are different. You don't go to my sort of school." That way lie a lot of difficulties.
Mr. Purchase : My hon. Friend talked of our Government's truly tremendous achievements on education, and I, like him, stand second to no one in commending them on what they have done. However, they are bunging £20 million, and whatever it is each year, at a Christian fundamentalist school that teaches creationism among other things. Does my hon. Friend think that the same fair wind would be given to an Islamic fundamentalist school that came forward with a couple of million quid towards £20 million?
Mr. Allen : I very much hope that debates such as this, which are conducted in a rational and friendly atmosphere by those on all parts of the parliamentary spectrum, will lead the Government to think about the unintended consequences of their policy. They should not think, "We have found a way forward. These schools look as though they are doing well. Let's have more of them." They should look beyond that at why such schools perform well, because, as my hon. Friend
14 Feb 2006 : Column 379WH
suggests, that has logical consequences for who we then fund. There are bound to be occasionsparticularly if the benign umbrella of the local education authority is weakenedwhen the weird and the wonderful, the repressive and the strange start receiving funding from the public education system.
We know that separating black children from white children at primary school is not acceptable and would probably lead to a generation growing up with a racist outlook. We know that separating poor children from rich children would perpetuate class inequality between those two social groups. Not only does religious segregation foster religious bigotry, but it inadvertently segregates races and classes. As I said, Christian schools are broadly the preserve of white middle-class children. Were we to establish a series of state-owned Muslim schools, I imagine that they would be predominantly Asian. Is that not racial and social segregation by the back door?
In some of our cities, school buses will pass each other, travelling in different directions, and one will be carrying predominantly white children, while the other will be carrying predominantly non-white children. Let us imagine what would happen to the already frayed tensions in towns such as BurnleyI could name many othersif the community were further polarised by dividing children between white Christian and Asian Muslim schools. However, I must underlinenot least to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen)that that is in no way to ascribe malice or evil to those who work in faith schools. On the contrary, I know from my own experience how self-sacrificing and dedicated many of them are. Such a claim forms no part of my case whatever. The problems I described are an unintended consequence of the massive drive on this issue, which crushes the best out of colleagues who work in such schools.
Research by Rebecca Allenno relativeof the Institute of Education demonstrated that segregation at faith schools was far greater than when all children went to their nearest school. The prospect of establishing more Islamic faith schools in the maintained sector raises additional problems, particularly for Muslim girls. Single-faith schools will mean more discrimination and that the most conservative, anti-women elements in all religions have a greater stranglehold over the education of our children and particularly our young girls.
A 2005 survey by the Islamic Human Rights Commission found that less than 50 per cent. of Muslims wanted their children to attend a faith school. However, it also showed that more Muslim men than women wanted their children to attend such a school. The former chief inspector of schools, David Bell, has also highlighted Islamic schools, saying:
"I worry that many young people are being educated in faith-based schools with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society."
That precise point could be made not only for Islamic schools but for other faith-based schools. Northern Ireland is a classic example of the dangers of religious segregation in schools. That issue has never been adequately addressed by any Government, whatever their political persuasion.
Mr. Purchase : All children have the benefit of being taught about the great religions of the world in whatever
14 Feb 2006 : Column 380WH
school they attend. Should they not, alongside that, have the enormous benefit of understanding the scientific revolution and the enlightenment, and is that not best achieved in schools that are without the single ethos of any particular religion?
Mr. Allen : Again, many who support the expansion of faith-based schools might fear that their children will otherwise be plunged into a valueless, soulless, faithless education. On the contrary, it is a far more enriching experience for a young person to know about all religions, to understand all their friends and colleagues in the same classroom, and to draw on that broader education. Some might then be able to make up their own minds on how to express their spirituality and their views. However, that might create even greater fear in those who believe in single-faith schoolsbut to pursue that issue would be to delve into the depths of religious philosophy, and I shall stay with the expansion, or not, of faith schools rather than enter that boggy area.
To finish my point about Northern Ireland, Lord Dubs in the other place quoted a survey that found that 82 per cent. of parents in Northern Ireland supported integrated education, and 52 per cent. said that their only reason for not sending their children to an integrated school was that there was not one in their locality. Many parents on the mainland are not sending their kids to the school of their choice, because they cannot send them to the school in their locality. I worry that if the expansion continues without proper debate or discussion in Parliament, or between those of faith and those with no faith, we could find that most people do not want to send their children to a faith-based school and do not support non-integrated education, but they have to lump it because that is all there is.
If a Member of Parliament in Westminster wanted to send their child to a local secondary school, they would have to get a letter from their vicar, and if they chose the school second furthest from the House of Commons, a letter from their priest. They would not be able to send their child to the local secondary school.
Surely, the answer to these problems is, at least as a first step, for all new schools to be community schools and for no further schools to be converted to religious schools. It is barely credible that we are talking in these terms in the 21st century. Some would argue that that would push more parents to send their children to religious private schools outside state control. If that were their choice, so be it. What is objectionable is not only that we as taxpayers have to pay for such schools, but that our children are barred from attending them because they are not of the right religion. Faith schools are intrinsically selective. They attract children by religionreal or professedand, all too often, religion is a proxy for class or race. There is immense scope for faith schools to choose "desirable" children who are likely to boost their league table standing and to palm off "undesirables".
Where could the Government go from here? Where would a reforming Government go? They could oblige all schools, including faith schools, to follow a curriculum of broad and balanced religious education, such as that laid out in the new but non-statutory national framework for religious education. In the case of faith schools, that could be in addition to whatever optional religion-specific teaching those schools were
14 Feb 2006 : Column 381WH
permitted to offer. The Government could oblige faith schools to be non-selective, making their intakes truly inclusive, like those of other schools.
Governments could reform the law to remove the requirement on community schools to have a daily act of broadly Christian collective worship, making such schools more welcoming places for families of no faith and of other faiths, giving them the broader education that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) mentionedthe rich variety of spirituality and human values of which we dismiss 98 per cent. when we send youngsters to a mono-faith school.
Governments could reduce any desire for separate schools on the part of minority faiths by making community schools more inclusive and accommodating, or they could refuse to use taxpayers' money to subsidise schools from which most local taxpayers' children were banned on the grounds of religion, just as we already do if they are banned on the grounds of race. We do it for race; we should do it for religion.
Secular schools offer an environment in which children of all backgrounds can mix. I repeat that we should put the matter into perspective. Most schools are secular places in which youngsters are not forced to take one religious view, and where they can learn about religions and none without fear of bias or indoctrination. Let us give children the facts in schools, and leave parents to guide their children along the spiritual or non-spiritual path of their choosing.
We have had a good debate, and I am glad that so many hon. Members from all parts of the House have participated. I have deliberately taken a long time in order to facilitate an exchange with colleagues and have, I hope, left enough time for others to make their own speeches and for Front Benchers to wind up the debate. I hope that, ultimately, the thing that will unite us will be ensuring that the Government move towards a position where parents and children want not religious schools but good schools.
Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. We have only three minutes before the winding-up speeches are due to start. I would encourage extreme brevity.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) that we have had a debate. We have heard a monologue against faith schools, and I cannot possibly cover many of his fallacious arguments in three minutes. However, I should like to deal with a few facts, because his remarks were rather short of those.
The first thing that one needs to say is that, while 18 per cent. of secondary schools are Church schools, one in five children in Catholic secondary schools is not Catholic, so it is not true to say that such schools prevent or select against other faiths. If we consider the ethnic mix of such schools, we find that, whereas the average proportion of white children in the population is 80 per
14 Feb 2006 : Column 382WH
cent., in Catholic schools it is 71 per cent. It is a clear fact that Catholicand other faithschools are multicultural and multi-ethnic. In exams, those on free school meals in each of the bands outperform those in the same bands in community schools. Those are the facts in the 2003 Ofsted report.
Similarly, let us consider who wants to open academy schools in some of our most deprived communities: it is the Church of England. That is part of its historic mission. Church schools were the first bodies to provide universal free education. While many have deserted our cities, the Churchesthrough the academy and foundation programmesare moving in, putting their money where their mouths are and doing something for those cities.
The selector is not religion; it is race. I have 25 years' experience of working in Church schools in Oldham and Bradford, and three in Nottingham in a non-Church school, so I know what I am talking about. The hon. Gentleman will find, if he considers what has been experienced, that it is not the Church schools in Bradford or Oldham that select, but the ordinary so-called community schools that do so in areas that have seen the white flight from the centre to the outskirts. That has been a result in many respects of unfettered choice. The schools in the centre, be they Church or community, deal with all faiths. I regret the fact that we cannot have a proper debate today, but I hope that some of my colleagues can respond to some of the fallacious arguments that have been made.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I will endeavour to move swiftly, because the subject is important.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), because he has clearly demonstrated the great need for a full and open debate. I am not convinced that time will allow us that this morning, unfortunately, but that was the one part of his argument that was absolutely convincing.
Personally, I am supportive of faith schools but I recognise that there is an alternative view that our education should be entirely secular. A lot of questions need to be openly and honestly addressed. I concur that the ideal is good local community schools, which means investing adequately in all our schools. It is not sufficient to attack schools that have more facilities than another; we need to attack the problem of the traditional lack of investment. Even where I come from, which is a relatively affluent part of the country, there are two areas where for years and years children in secondary modern schools were badly let down. I do not see that as a consequence of the faith school.
It is highly important that community schools are incredibly sensitive to multi-faith sensibilities. We are where we are because of the history of Anglican, non-conformist and Roman Catholic schools and the partnerships that formed over centuries, which were reinforced by the Education Act 1944. By 1998, we as Liberal Democrats felt that if partnership was offered to Anglican and Roman Catholic Church schools, it would be unacceptable to deny partnership to schools from other faiths. That is a difficulty, but it gives us a great challenge. Here I do agree with the hon. Gentleman:
14 Feb 2006 : Column 383WH
right across the countryalthough it obviously differs according to the circumstancesthe challenge to us all is to promote co-operation, understanding, joint working and other arrangements that help bridge divides without losing the importance of individual faiths and ethos.
I share the views on community integration. The Cantle and Ouseley reports noted the roles of schools, which are important for integration but can serve to fragment the community. The recent statement from David Bell, with all his expertise from Ofsted, expressed such reservations, too. We cannot ignore that; I absolutely agree. However, I recognise, as my party does, the popularity and success of many faith schools. Many are oversubscribed; many achieve higher than average GCSE and A-level scores. We certainly do not argue for the removal of state funding from existing schools.
Dr. Harris : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because I know that she has a lot to say about how clear Liberal Democrat policy is on the subjectnot. Can she give any evidence of why she thinks that there are good exam results in faith schools that select on the basis of parents' faith or claimed faith after allowing for the social selection that occurs? Can she cite the academic studies that underpin that assertion, which I think is flawed?
Annette Brooke : I will cover that point as I progress, although I am afraid that I will not do so with hard evidence. We can all be selective with the statistics. I will come on to the Sutton Trust's figures and will treat them in a manner that will possibly support my hon. Friend's argument.
I taught at an independent Church of England school for 10 years where recently the head girl was of Muslim faith. In all the time that I was there, a considerable proportion of girls of faiths other than C of E attended the school. I believe that the multi-faith intake enhanced school life and ethos.
I am proud to have had a close association over the years with a voluntary-aided comprehensive school in PooleSt. Edwards school. It has been a joint Roman Catholic and Church of England school since 1991, and has been a model for some of the changes in Northern Ireland. It gives priority to children with special needs who apply from the local community and operates with an admissions policy of a maximum of 75 per cent. Roman Catholic and a minimum of 25 per cent. Church of England. It usually takes between 10 and 15 per cent. of its students from a Free Church background.
St. Edwards is oversubscribed, so how are the places allocated? I have a few difficulties with the process. A form is filled in that has to contain a statement of connection with local schools for the governors. I am not convinced that that is an openly transparent system. On the other hand, most children in the school come from the main Catholic feeder middle schools. That is fairly straightforward. If one suggested that the school should have a fixed percentage from the local communityI am not suggesting thatit would argue that that would deprive baptised Catholics of a place. That is a difficulty.
The school is proud of its record of collaboration with local schools. That is good, as joint benefits are produced. College students come to the school to take
14 Feb 2006 : Column 384WH
A-level religious education. If in future we had more of a Tomlinson model with more collaboration between local schools, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North described, we could get the best for our children and take what is good in our schools. I suspect a wish to destroy something, and we need to think carefully before we do that. We need to build on what we have and ensure that we get the best for all our children.
The Sutton Trust has produced a report on the subject, and Sir Peter Lampl has said that faith schools should be barred from using religious belief as a means of admitting pupils. His study concurs that that can be a cause of social selection, and cites the country's top comprehensive schools. Yes, there are variations on whether the school's intake matches the local community profile for free school meals, but that is where the local authority comes in. The local authority should have an overview and ensure that we get the best for our children, all working in collaboration. We should not have fixed percentages for this, that and the other; we need good local leadership and to work together.
The Sutton Trust report mentions that 70 per cent. of the top 200 comprehensive schools control their own admissions. The message applies across the board: should we be moving to a situation where more schools can control their admissions? That adds a question mark. Even with the welcome caveat that interviews are banned, we all know that there is a long list of other ways of selection. There are problems, but there is no need to pick on faith schools, as schools across the board have hidden selection processes. As a supporter of faith schools, I say again that we have to look clearly right across the board. There is further evidence, which I will not dwell on now, that supports the potential social segregation of faith schools.
Statistics provided by Canon John Hall, the Church of England's chief education officer, show that the average of pupils on free school meals in Church of England secondary schools was 13.2 per cent. compared with a national English average of 15.8 per cent. We can all pick up the statistics, which is why we should to look at the individual cases.
I was heartened by the speech made by the Bishop of Liverpool in the other place last week. He described the system set up in Liverpool, which takes children from the deprived local community and has made a huge contribution. I do not want that contribution to cease.
I am concerned about the report of the Institute for Research in Integrated Strategies, which suggests that primary schools are now becoming more selective. Parents are looking at league tables. I am worried about the Government's agenda. There is a great deal more to be said, but time is running out so I wish only to re-emphasise that we need a proper open debate and overall collaborationnot destructionto achieve what is best for our children.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): This is a very welcome and important debate. It has drawn attention effectively to the key issues that need to be aired and I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on the easy-going and open way in which he introduced it. The Opposition
14 Feb 2006 : Column 385WH
approach to faith schools is one of support. We believe in a diverse range of education provisions to cater for the varied demands of parents and pupils. The choice might not be perfect, but some imperfect choice is better than no choice at all.
We also support faith schools because the majority of them deliver a high quality of education. In my constituency, the primary school with the best results in 2005 was St. Mary's Roman Catholic school in Bognor Regis; 91 per cent. of its pupils reached level 4 in English and 97 per cent. in science, and that school does not have a rarefied intake. It achieved those results because of the ethos that it has established. In the top 200 comprehensive schools in the secondary sector, 42 per cent. are faith schools, even though, overall, faith schools represent only 18 per cent. of the total.
Mr. Purchase : Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether it is a religious ethos that brings better education? If so, should we be saying to teachers, "We think that you had better get God"?
Mr. Gibb : That may or may not be a better reason for the ethos, but the ethos of such schools is certainly different. Parents are so desperate to send their children to the school, because it has an ethos that they do not detect for whatever reason in other schools in the area.
Let us consider Catholic schools, in particular. In the key stage 2 results in 2005, nearly one in five of the best primary schools were Catholic; 21 of the top 115 primary schools in terms of their value-added element are Catholic, which is about 18 per cent., whereas they represent only about 10 per cent. of schools in total. In the secondary sector, 23 of the top 100 comprehensives are Catholicmore than twice the 10 per cent. that they ought to represent given the number of schools.
Research undertaken for the Church's review group showed that Church of England schools achieve five percentage points above the usual average LEA school in their five or more GCSE results. There are similar high-achieving results in Jewish schools. We must ask why. The hon. Members for Nottingham, North and for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) argue that the results are high because the intake of the schools is skewed. The report by the Institute for Research in Integrated Strategies, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) referred, argues that voluntary-aided schools submitted a lower proportion of children eligible for free school meals compared with the eligibility criteria in the local postcode area of those schools. The disparity is not that huge; overall, it is 19 per cent. versus 14 per cent. The Catholic Education Service argues that the most likely reason for such a disparity was that its schools served a much wider geographical area than the immediate postcode area of the school. My understanding is that faith schools do not try to cherry-pick students.
The value-added results of faith schools are far better than the average, which shows that, even if the intake were skewed slightly from 19 per cent. to 14 per cent. away from the average of free school mealswe cannot always control whether parents have to apply to such schoolsthat is not the key driver of higher standards
14 Feb 2006 : Column 386WH
compared with other non-faith based schools. If it were the sole reason for the better results, there would not be high value-added figures for faith schools.
Dr. Harris : I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to what the National Foundation for Educational Research told the Education and Skills Committee. In 2003, it said:
"On the basis of our research looking exclusively at achievement, there is not any evidence at all to suggest really that increasing the number of faith schools will improve the level of achievement . . . Our finding is that basically, when you apply value-added analysis, that advantage all but disappears, which suggests that the difference is based on intake."
That shows the point through academic research.
Mr. Gibb : There is academic research that proves the contrary. For example, the parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) from the Minister on 28 November 2005 showed the percentage of pupils receiving free school meals and achieving five or more A* to C grades at GCSE. It illustrated different schools and different categories of proportions of free school meals. It showed faith schools out-performing similar non-faith schools with similar intakes of children with free school meals, and a much higher proportion of those children achieving higher grades.
For example, I refer to a complex table, which shows that in 2004 of schools with between 35.1 per cent. and 50 per cent. of pupils eligible for free school meals, 25.9 per cent. of pupils in non-faith schools achieved five or more GCSE grades A* to C compared with 36 per cent. of such pupils who achieve those grades at faith schools. That figure is pretty typical across the range of tables that were shown in the Minister's reply. The more that we examine that parliamentary answer and the data that it contains, the less convincing is the reputation that faith schools achieve their results by skewing their intake. The fact is that many faith schools can develop an ethos and an approach to education that delivers higher levels of educational attainment. For example, Ofsted said about one faith school:
"The school successfully imports to pupils the idea that the pursuit of excellence is part and parcel of the spiritual life of the school."
It went on to say that the school's success is
"due to the implementation of good practical approaches to teaching and school management within a strong framework of Christian values and ideals."
I do not accept that the high levels of achievement in faith schools are solely the result of the intake. The reason why parentseven non-religious parentsare so desperate to put their children into faith schools is often that the ethos, the discipline and the behaviour in such schools are more in tune with what they want for their children. They find that other schools in the locality simply do not have that ethos, not because of the intake of those schools but because the leadership of the schools takes a different philosophical and ethical approach to education.
14 Feb 2006 : Column 387WH
Catholic schools also tend to have a much more diverse ethnic mix than similar non-faith schools. As the Catholic Education Service said:
"Catholic schools are truly comprehensive, resisting grammar school routes and welcoming children of every ability, including with Special Educational Needs, race and ethnic mix. The vast majority of Catholic VA schools, where they are oversubscribed, select only on the basis of religion."
That statement was endorsed by Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. He said:
"Data from OFSTED shows that when we look at the ethnic mix of schools, Catholic schools tend to be far more mixed than local authority schools. A healthy mix might be a school with a proportion of ethnic minority pupils somewhere between 5 per cent. and 40 per cent.where these children neither predominate, nor are they isolated."
"Among state schools, about a quarter (25.6 per cent.) fall into this group. But amongst Catholic schools, a third (32.5 per cent.) would fit this description. So the passion being spent on arguments about whether we need more or fewer faith schools is, in my view, misspent."
In all the debates in recent months about education policy, there has been an obsession about the intake of a school. It is an ideological obsession that says that the quality of a school is determined by its intake and that excellence or high levels of achievement can have been gained only by fiddling the admissions criteria. I do not accept that. The debate about faith schools, in particular, is dominated by ideological obsessionsthe anti-religious, secularist movement on the one hand and those obsessed with the issue of how over-subscribed schools determine their admissions on the other. It is important that we do not let ideology determine education policy, whether it is ideology of the right or of the left. What matters is what works. It is clear that faith schools work. They are popular, they are oversubscribed, they have good behaviour and they achieve high levels of attainment. We need to focus on what works. It seems to me that faith schools do work. They are demanded by parents, and the state needs to ensure that they continue to be provided.
The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on what has been a very good debate. It has, of course, gone significantly wider than its title, and in the relatively short time left to me to respond I shall focus largely on admissions arrangements, although it is worth setting out, as other hon. Members have done, the historical context for the system of faith schools in this country. Those schools have for many years contributed to the education of our children. Almost 7,000 schoolsnearly a third of all state schoolsare faith-based, and the great majority of them are provided by the Christian Churches. Indeed, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church established an education system in this country long before the state became involved.
There is a perfectly respectable argument for moving to a secular education system in this country. I do not think that anyonewith the possible exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase)has attempted to make that
14 Feb 2006 : Column 388WH
argument today. I therefore find it quite difficult to envisage our being willing to countenance the continuation of faith schools while deciding to shut off opportunities for other parents and faith-based groups who might want the same kind of publicly funded state education rather than to have to go independent. It is for that reason that the Government have welcomed schools of other faiths joining the maintained sector.
I want to make clear the framework within which we expect such schools to operate. We expect every school in the maintained sector to work within the school admissions framework. All such schools have a statutory duty to comply with parental preference, offering parents a right of appeal if they cannot offer a place, and, since the Education Act 2002, faith schools, like all other maintained schools, have had to participate in the local authority co-ordination of the secondary school admissions process. They have also, of course, had to set their admissions policies after having regard to the school admissions code of practice, which gives guidance on what the Secretary of State considers to be good or poor practice. They also need to ensure that their arrangements are clear, fair and objective and that they serve the interests of all parents and children in their area; the method of assessing religious observance, where that is used, should be clearly stated and published. If other schools or local authorities believe that any school's arrangements are not fair, or are unlawful or discriminatory, or not in line with the code, they can object to the schools adjudicator. Schools have also worked through mandatory admissions forums, with their local authorities and other schools and academies, to discuss and improve local admissions arrangements.
However, while most faith schools give some priority to members of their own faith, the 2002 Actas I think the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) mentionedmade it unlawful for any school in the state system to refuse places to those of other faiths or no faith if they have vacancies. That means that it is no longer possible for schools to adopt the previous practice by which they could keep places vacant if they did not receive enough applications from members of their own faitheven if there were other applicants. The effect has been to ensure that faith schools that are not oversubscribed have become more inclusive for children of other faiths or none, and that they can no longer hold on to empty places when children need and want them.
There has been considerable and understandable discussion about the extent to which faith-based schools equate with social segregation. I acknowledge those concerns but increasingly I thinkand the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) made the pointthat segregation in schools is frequently as much an accident of patterns of employment and housing as a reflection of school admissions arrangements. That is not to say that we do not believe that faith schools need to be inclusive of other faiths and maintain admissions policies that admit pupils from their local area, as well as those of their faith. That is why the existing school admissions code of practiceI shall talk shortly about changes that we propose to make to italready encourages schools to widen their policies to contribute to community cohesion.
14 Feb 2006 : Column 389WH
I have a fact to contribute to the debate: it is not statistically the case that there are large discrepancies in the social make-up of faith schools as compared with non-faith schools. For the most disadvantaged schoolsthose with more than 21 per cent. of their children receiving free school mealsthe proportion of voluntary-aided and other schools is broadly similar. The average free school meal rate in the two categories is similar. In voluntary-aided schools it is 33.8 per cent, whereas in non-voluntary-aided schools it is 34.1 per cent. However, it appears, from the achievement levels in those equivalent most disadvantaged schools, that despite those similarities voluntary-aided schools are making an important contribution for disadvantaged pupils: 47.6 per cent. of pupils in voluntary-aided schools achieve five or more GCSEs at A* to C grade, compared with 40.6 per cent. in non-voluntary-aided schools.
There has been discussion about the extent to which faith schools should develop or are developing their admissions arrangements to ensure greater inclusiveness. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, several years ago committed the Church of England and all its schools to giving priority for at least some places to children of other faiths or none. That was a welcome pledge. Similarly, as we have heard, many Roman Catholic schools admit a high proportion of non-Catholic children, particularly in the inner cities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North rightly, I think, gave a challenge to the Church to take seriously its mission to tackle educational disadvantage. There are certainly good examples of how faith schools can work very well in contributing to community cohesion and tackling social and educational disadvantage in some of the new academies. The Liverpool academy has already been referred to. In a deprived area of the city it is an innovative partnership between the Catholic Church and the Church of England, and it does not use faith-based admissions. The Church of England sponsors six academies in partnership with businesses, the voluntary sector or other faith denominations. Other faith-based groups are supporting academies, in the vast majority of which there are no faith-based admissions criteria, and every
14 Feb 2006 : Column 390WH
one of them is firmly centred in its local community, with 100 per cent. of the pupils drawn from that community.
That is important progress, but of course we recognise that there is still work to be done to improve the school admissions process. One aspect of that is ensuring that applications reflect parents' aspirations, and that parents are not put off because of what they view as the actual or potential selection arrangements of schools. That is why we shall present proposals for choice advisers to advise all parentsparticularly those who have not always had the information and ability to make the right choices for their children. That is, in addition, why we will extend entitlement to free transport and tighten up, and change the status of, the school admissions code of practice, so that schools must "act in accordance" with it. We will provide much clearer guidance to schools, local authorities and the schools adjudicator on what we consider to be acceptable and unacceptable practice. We shall also legislate to prevent schools from interviewing as part of their process to determine whether a child should be admitted.
We are concerned, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) pointed out, to promote ethnic, religious and cultural tolerance, and respect among different groups of people living and working together. To that end, we already expect promoters of new schools to show how their proposals will help to promote community cohesion. That will be very clear in the future, and new and expanding schools will need to put forward their proposed admission arrangements; once a proposal has been approved, we will require, under new legislation, their admission arrangements to remain unchanged for the first three years of operation.
We shall give admissions forums a stronger role. We will in particular expect them to monitor the impact of local admissions arrangements on social segregation, and give them the power both to prepare and publish reports on matters connected to admissions to maintained schools in their area and to refer objections to admission arrangements to the schools adjudicator.
Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. We must move to the next debate.
14 Feb 2006 : Column 389WH
14 Feb 2006 : Column 391WH
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|