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1 Nov 2006 : Column 115WHcontinued
the rule is very straightforward...You compete for a job and you are judged on your suitability for that job. The question of
should never enter into it.
His concern is that policies have got to the point where
we recognise difference even if it is at the cost of equality.
He also said that diversity is not damaging to society, adding:
What is damaging to our society is the recognition of diversity without the recognition of commonality.
There is widespread concern about how that might operate.
It has hitherto not been permitted to include head teachers in voluntary-controlled schools among the20 per cent. of those who are reserved teachers and who are subject to a faith test and to sanctions if their private conduct is outwith the schools ethos. However, the second change that the Government propose is to include head teachers in that 20 per cent. That has serious implications for the prospects of many senior teachers, who might want to apply for headship, but who might feel that they will not pass the religion test because they do not share the religious beliefs of the school to which they wish to apply, or who, having applied, might find that a less qualified person is given the job.
Can the Government give any justification for introducing this rule, especially at a time when there is a shortage of head teachers? Can the Minister tell us of any problems with heads who have been appointed on the basis of their ability to lead a school and to teach, but who have let the schools ethos go to wrack and ruin simply because they do not pitch up often enough at a place of worship on the prescribed day in their spare time or because they are not sufficiently religious in their private lives? If the Government cannot show that there is a problem, they should not increase the range of people to whom the discrimination should apply.
We have not had a chance to debate the provision in the House, although we may do so tomorrow when the Education and Inspections Bill returns to the Floor of the House for consideration of Lords amendments in what, given the nature of these things, will be a short debate. However, I hope that the Minister will respond to my specific questions about the consultation and about how he can justify people being subjected to a faith test when seeking appointment as a school secretary or teaching assistant or when seeking promotion.
As the Minister will know, staff members in such circumstances have a defenceshould they be aware of itin the employment discrimination regulations. Those who are aware of the regulations and who have the funding can bring a case to say that there is not a genuine occupational requirement. However, the Minister will also know that some religious organisations and schools feel that requiring secretaries or other such staff to lead prayers once a month gives them a genuine occupational reason to say that there must be a faith test, because they could not allow someone who was not of the right faith to lead prayers if that was part of the job. What faith does the Minister have that the genuine occupational requirement provisions of employment discrimination law will offer adequate protection ab initio, rather than once someone has suffered, and ensure that people are not discriminated against? It is bad enough that teaching staff might be affected, but why are non-teaching staff required to be
of a particular religion before a state school can employ them? After all, the state pays 100 per cent. of the salary costs and the vast majority of the capital costs of voluntary-aided schools.
I am grateful to the House for giving me time to make my points. I look forward to hon. Members contributions and to the Ministers response.
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for raising this important issue. The debate is very timely; indeed, it has been timely for many years, and I will talk particularly about the historical basis of faith schools, although I do not want to get into a separate debate. However, it is important not to divorce ourselves from where we have come from or to see the debate in a vacuum, because faith schools have benefited this country over the years.
First, however, I should register, rather than formally declare, an interest. My constituency has a large number of faith schools, including Church of England schools, Jewish schools such as Wolfson Hillel primary school, and several Catholic schools. I therefore see the range of faith schools and the impact that they have on my constituency. There is a diverse community in my constituency; indeed, in terms of Conservative representation, there is a relatively high proportion of members from the Hindu and Muslim communities, who also benefit very much from faith schools.
I have been the governor of a Church of England school for more than 12 years and I have four children at my Church school. Indeed, as a parent governor, I am currently taking part in discussions about the admissions criteria of our school, and we have a couple of weeks left to propose any amendments. I therefore listened with great care to the hon. Gentleman to see whether he could come up with any suggestions to improve the current state of play, which properly recognises not only the preference for parents with a faith, but the sibling criteria, although that is a debate for another day.
The hon. Gentleman spoke primarily about discrimination, which he sought to make the focus of the debate. However, there is also the issue of selection. To a certain extent, one could say that any selection involves discrimination, and that is the case in a variety of schools of different complexions. One has to accept, however, that discrimination is not wrong per se; the issue is whether it is done on the right grounds and whether it is properly proportionate to the position and to the benefits that are entailed.
The faith test, which is at the heart of this debate and of the debate about admissions processes, has been criticised. Why should there be a faith test? I want to set faith schools and particularly Church schools in their historical context, because we need to recognise where faith schools are coming from. They have not suddenly decided to have an admissions process that includes a faith test, and there is not a vacuum in that respect. One has to recognise that Churches have played an important historical role in making education available not only to Church members, but
to the wider populace. Before the state became involved in funding education, that is how much education was provided in areas of great need, and education was extended to the wider community. One must recognise that that is where we have come from and, indeed, where we should seek to go when looking at the admissions process.
The Archbishop of Canterbury referred to the value of Church schools in March, when he reaffirmed the Churchs long history. He stated:
Its involvement in education was a completely natural outgrowth of its pastoral vocation to be present in every community.
He went on to outline the Churchs involvement in faith schools in areas of great need and social deprivation. Historically, the Church has been present throughout the country, reaching out to, and helping to educate, the wider community. It has not been there primarily to select from its membership, but to be of value to the country.
We need to look at that context when considering the admissions process and to recognise that the Church is inextricably linked with education in this country. About 25 per cent. of all state primary schools are Church of England schools, and one can add a number of Catholic schools, Jewish schools and other faith schools. The Churchs involvement in such schools is practical and financial. It also involves governance, because the Church is involved as a governor. There is therefore a fixed attachment to the Church, and that should provide the opportunity and the freedom to define admissions to the school.
It is right that the admissions process should properly supplement and support a schools faith basis. It is not just an add-on for the school; it is fundamental to its character, ethos and historical basis in the community and, indeed, the country.
Roger Berry: Would the hon. Gentleman apply the same argument elsewhere? Would he entirely support non-faith schools that wished to apply a faith test to admissions policy?
Mr. Burrowes: It is a matter for that school to determine. I would be willing to allow the school the freedom to determine the selection, although it might be somewhat perverse for it to want to follow such a process through.
Roger Berry: Do I understand the hon. Gentleman to be saying that he would support a policy whereby a non-faith school could apply a faith test in selecting students for admission? Would he regard that as reasonable?
Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the point. Obviously, there are rules to allow one to object to that process, but non-faith schools should properly have the freedom to develop a character and ethos, and that should be there for all to see in the admissions process. It is important that any such process properly supports and supplements the character and basis of the school.
Dr. Harris: I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying that a non-faith schoola specifically non-religious schoolwith an ethos that is morally right, appropriate and about good behaviour, should, if it is over-subscribed, be allowed to turn down for admission a child with religious parents, or a child who claims to be religiousalthough the latter are few and far between, in my experienceso that it can promote its ethos by preventing its membership from being polluted by those who are inimical to it. I think that that is what he agreed.
Mr. Burrowes: No. To clarify the position, it is not simply a matter of their being allowed to develop a faith test. There should be freedom to determine the character of the school, and the way in which it is developing, even in a non-faith way.
As to the employment argument, it is important to recognise that a school with a faith ethos should properly be allowed to employ teachers with a faith. Faith is not simply a matter of an occupational requirement to say prayers or deliver an assembly. Faith permeates a faith school, including different areas of the curriculum and activities. Primarily, there should be freedom to ask teachers employed in faith schools to lead prayers and to promote faith values; however, the issue is relevant not just in religious education, but in other areas, so that pupils receive a holistic education. That is very much what parents like about faith schools. They do not see them as just somewhere for children to hear prayers and have a good religious assembly. Parents recognise that the faith basis of schools permeates the education and standards in the school.
Parents and governors alike no doubt recognise and appreciate the proper freedom that is given to employ head teachers and teachers who can endorse and promote the values at the heart of the success of many schools. Perhaps a distinction can be made as to school support staff, but there should be an opportunity for those at the front line to promote the ethos of the school. It is an important factor in a school and one recognised by parents, which is why faith schools are popular. Parents know that it is not simply on one day a week when children will hear prayers and take part in assembly; teachers will be promoting the school ethos.
Dr. Harris: Is the hon. Gentleman happy, then, that if two people applied for the job of teaching maths or geography and one was better qualified than the other but being of the wrong religion or no religion was unable sincerely to lead prayers, the less well qualified teacher should, all other things being equal, be appointed, so as to be able sincerely to lead prayers? Does the hon. Gentleman consider that to be such an important aspect of state education that it is a ground for appointing less good teachers? That is the effect of current and proposed law.
The hon. Gentleman is looking for the lowest common denominator. Obviously the school would want the best qualified teacher for the job, but an important factor in considering the best qualified teacher, rather than the worst, would be the ability properly to promote and support the schools fundamental ethos. It is important for the governing body to have the right to make inquiries about applicants faith. It should not be constrained by law, which should recognise that teachers
whom it employs should be able to support the fundamental ethos of the school. It might well be perverse, and it would be relevant, if the applicant were a secularist or, indeed, a Satanist. It would be relevant to the employment of a teacher to promote the schools ethos.
The debate is about admissions and employment, but it should also be about recognising the context in which faith schools have served us well for many years. They have certainly served my constituents in Enfield, Southgate well. We should not be looking for ways to restrict or undermine, through admissions or employment, the fundamental ethos of those schools. We should, on the other hand, be looking to expand them.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): For me, the debate is not just about admissions policy, although that is its context. I want to consider what the Secretary of State said only a few weeks ago. I congratulate him on being tremendously courageous in meeting the challenges of multiculturalism. I am a great believer in multiculturalism and the spirit of multiculturalism. I am against segregation, and I think that in his great spirited way the Secretary of State was trying to break down barriers and avoid future segregation. For that he was slapped down by the whole religious lobby.
I find that very sad, because the Secretary of State was thinking, as we say in new Labour, for the long termnot tomorrow or the day after but perhaps 15 or 20 years time. We do not want groups of people in society who believe that one religion is superior to anothera generation in which some believe that the only way is jihad and others believe it is Khalistan, and in which there are also Hindu fundamentalists. By the way, I am of Hindu and Sikh descent, and I am very happy to be so, although I am a non-believer. I was raised in both of those beliefs and went to a state school. I had no problem with learning about all faiths.
I have raised the issue of faith schools previously. In 2001, I expressed my fears about the legislation with the then Secretary of State, now Baroness Morris. Five years later I still fear that we are going in the wrong direction. The present Secretary of State has been trying to put matters right, and perhaps temporarily he has gone part of the way to addressing the fears of those who have worried unnecessarily. He was talking about a change of policy for new faith schools, not existing ones.
When Baroness Morris was Secretary of State she was asked in the Education and Skills Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor):
Is it likely, for example, that a new Muslim school or a new Sikh school would admit a large number of Catholics?
I think it is very likely. My feeling is that that is what happens. Church of England schools do, Roman Catholic schools do, they are multi-racial. We now have quite a lot of plans to change the admissions framework.
Can the Minister tell me how many Catholics attend Muslim schools, and how many attend Sikh schools? We are five years down the road, and the Secretary of State had faith five years ago that people would enter other schools. I should like to see the evidence that
demonstrates that progress has been made. If the Minister can produce it, I shall be happy to say that we are going in the right direction.
I come from a very liberal Hindu family, and my father would not in a million years have sent me to a Muslim schoolor a Sikh school for that matter; he is a devout Hindu. If we want to change society and keep the spirit of multiculturalism we shall have to create a mechanism for integration between communities. Otherwise parallel communities will be built up in schools in years to come. In that respect I praise the Secretary of State for trying something new and courageous. I am, as I said, sorry that we have had to move away from what he said. We have changed to a voluntary route. I am happy to see to what extent it works, because sooner or later we will have to move further and make legislative changes.
I sincerely believe that if we are to reduce the number of divisions that exist in society, we will need a mechanism to bring different communities together. The religious gap between the Christian communities is much smaller, although there are Roman Catholic schools and Church of England schools, than the huge gap between the Muslim, Hindu and the Sikh communities. Those who do not recognise that ignore the history of the past 1,000 years and what happened in the Indian subcontinent, particularly during the partition in 1947. They destroy that; they ignore it at their peril, because we will pay a heavy price here in years to come. We will be old people and somebody else will be running the show, but people will wonder why things are going the way they are and why there are more divisions than ever before. Things will go wrong today, not then, if we allow more faith schools but with no integration.
That is my fear, although I hope that I am wrong about it. I mentioned it over and over again to the previous Secretary of State, and I praise the present Secretary of State for being courageous. As I said, he was slapped down heavily and unfairly. I hope that the Minister will tell him that I admire his courage and the spirit in which he tried to do what he did. I shall say no more than that because I know that the debate is about admissions, but I have tried to highlight the wider aspect of admissions policy and its consequences.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones. I apologise for the fact that my voice is not in better working order.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate. I think of him, perhaps wrongly, as the Richard Dawkins of the House of Commons, in respect of the doggedness and ingenuity with which he puts his arguments. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) is perhaps competing for that title.
Roger Berry: I take that as a compliment.
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