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1 Nov 2006 : Column 121WH—continued

Mr. Goodman: The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has done us a service by obtaining the debate. It has proved that in practice it is hard, if not
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impossible, to separate the question of admissions, which he raised at the start of his remarks, from the question of faith schools generally. That was proved by the remarks of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar).

In the brief time available, I want to reflect on the25 per cent. proposal, to which the Government appear to be marching up the hill; apparently, there has now been a march down from the top of the hill. In all the debate about the proposal, two undercurrents or motives were supporting it. One has been expounded at its most eloquent by the hon. Member for Oxford,West and Abingdon—the straightforward secularist argument. The second, which cropped up a few moments ago, was a straightforward feeling that action was necessary to crack down on the Islamists.

Muslim schools were an important factor in the debate. I have an interest in that I represent 9,000 Muslim constituents—they constitute 10.7 per cent. of my constituents, which is the largest percentage in respect of any Conservative Member of Parliament. Although some non-Muslim voters did not quite put it this way during the debate on the 25 per cent., I feel that they were wondering why their schools should be penalised in order that the Government might crack down on the Islamists.

My Muslim constituents would have been asking a different question, as, indeed, they told me: why should we be victimised in this way by the Government because we want to have our own faith schools on the same terms as the other religions? A very important question is whether fears of Muslim schools are justified. I want to take a step back, and to speak briefly about Islamism in order to answer it. I should give a health warning: I am not an expert on Islam. The lack of experts on Islam is a problem in the Commons.

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight) indicated dissent.

Mr. Goodman: I see one. I am also not an expert on Islamism, which I would define as being the perversion and distortion of a great and noble religion. Islamism has three features that concern me.

Roger Berry: I fear that we may slightly move off the topic, so before we do, may I ask the hon. Gentleman a simple question? Does he agree that Muslim schools should be treated in exactly the same way as Catholic and Church of England schools? If so, and if schools of faith should be able to apply a faith test for admissions, why on earth should non-faith schools be denied that choice?

Mr. Goodman: The hon. Gentleman’s first question leads me to exactly where I want to go. I am going there and to admissions directly, but I shall do so via this route of Islamism.

As I see it, there are three features of Islamism. One is the extreme distinction that it draws between what it calls the “house of Islam” and the “house of war”. I understand that it is not a feature of mainstream Muslim thought. Secondly, the Islamists argue that the loyalty of Muslims is primarily, politically, to the umma—the body of Muslims worldwide—and not to the country in which they happen to be living. Thirdly, there is the question of the application of the sharia.

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I come directly to the questions of whether Muslim schools should be in the state sector and what their admissions policies should be, which were put to me a few moments ago. If we examine where most Muslim schools are located now, we find that they are mostly in the private sector. If someone were to ask me whether Islamism—this distorted form of Islam—is being taught in them, my answer would be that I do not know. I do know that if more of them were in the state sector, where many of them wish to be and where they can be regulated, inspected and subject to all the norms that the Government properly recognise, there would be far less chance of their being Islamist in character and far more chance of their being mainstream Islamic in character.

Dr. Kumar: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of something that David Bell, the former chief inspector of schools, said last January. Referring to the Muslim faith schools, he said that he was worried that

He added that we

Mr. Goodman: The question is: how do we best not allow that? My answer is that it would be better if more Muslim schools were in the state sector, where they can be regulated, inspected and subject to all the norms that the Department for Education and Skills applies. That is where admissions comes in. If Muslim schools were compelled to take 25 per cent. of their pupils from non-Muslim backgrounds, would they be more likely to come into the state sector or less? They would be less likely to come in, which was one of the many reasons why I was opposed to the 25 per cent. proposal that was being floated, and why I welcome the new emphasis that the Government have rightly put on inspecting for cohesion.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has done us a service in raising these complex issues of faith, education and choice. The more likely it is that faith schools control their own admissions in the way that they have done since the Butler settlement, the more likely it is that Muslim schools, in particular, would be able to come into the state sector and be subject to all the norms that the DFES requires, and thereby social cohesion would be advanced. I am happy to have been able to make that point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to do so.

3.29 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this timely debate. I greatly respect his strong feelings and the eloquence with which he presented his views, which are shared by some MPs in all parties. Indeed, there is unquestionably a great deal of logic in his arguments. However, there are also MPs in all parties who do not share his conclusions.

I am here to give not my personal view but that of my party. I, too, will start by declaring an interest. I am a practising Catholic and married to an Anglican who
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is a primary school teacher currently teaching in a Catholic school. I was educated in faith schools, but my teachers notably included many who were not Catholics. I like to think that during my time at school I learned a lot—although perhaps not enough—about other faiths and adopted tolerance to the many faiths and cultures that existed and to people who have no faith and come from a secular background.

It is important to say that there are many excellent and popular faith schools throughout the country and they have been part of the education system in Britain for many years. My party recognises that the school system historically owes much—this echoes the point made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes)—to the provision of Anglican, nonconformist and Catholic Church schools, both primary and secondary. We also accept the logic of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 which allows other faiths access to state funding for their schools.

I want to make it clear that my party does not argue, and has not argued, for removal of state funding from faith schools. We recognise their valuable role in this country’s education system, but we are all aware that faith education is an important issue that polarises opinion. This is a timely debate because we have all seen the coverage of the wider issue of the role that faith plays in our society, and of religious dress and symbols in the workplace. We must accept that that is all part of the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon raised two specific points and I shall take them in reverse order. First, on employment restrictions, my party remains opposed to extending the right of schools to select staff on religious grounds to head teachers and non-teaching staff. We believe that that could be discriminatory under employment law and is largely unnecessary. What is absolutely necessary is that anyone working in a school must have the ethos of the school. That applies to my wife, Raegan, who is not of the same faith as the school in which she teaches, and to everyone else, including the head teacher and the caretaker. Everyone working in a school should share its ethos, whether it is a faith or non-faith school.

We opposed the introduction of a 20 per cent. quota in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and proposed amendments to sections 58 and 60, as my hon. Friend explained. The new Government amendment to that Act retains, approves and extends what we believe to be problematic and discriminatory.

Secondly, the crux of the debate is admissions, which is topical in the light of the Baker amendment. My party was thoroughly opposed to the Baker amendment. Although it was a helpful way of starting the debate, it was ill considered and, as more than one hon. Member has said, clearly had implications for the problem of religious fundamentalism in schools. Any quota—25 per cent. or otherwise—is artificial and could have a perverse effect. Apart from the worry that it might prevent local children from being able to get into a school that their parents had chosen, it could have a perverse effect if there were simply not enough children from the relevant faith to fill the quota, because children would have to be bussed in from a great distance to fulfil the non-faith quota. That is not a sensible way of approaching the matter.

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There is a lot of pragmatism in the school sector. Admissions is clearly a challenging and complicated issue—we all acknowledge that—throughout the system, but many faith schools do not stick rigidly to a policy of preferential treatment even for local children of their faith. I know of faith schools in my area of West Yorkshire that are actively recruiting children who are not from their faith background because they do not have sufficient children to fill the school. The matter is not simple and we must be pragmatic. I want to make it clear that neither I nor my party shares my hon. Friend’s conclusion that the right of faith schools to continue to select people from their faith community and live locally should be abolished.

Roger Berry: Is it right for a faith school to reject a local, next-door applicant of a different faith while accepting someone who travels 10 or 15 miles because they happen to belong to the right faith? The idea that prevalence is to local students at faith schools does not always occur, as the hon. Gentleman may know.

Greg Mulholland: I made it absolutely clear that the admissions issue is complicated, which is why we need diversity of provision. However, my party and I believe that we need local control to ensure that all children go to a school that fulfils their parents’ desires.

I want to turn to the need for community cohesion. I am sure that we all agree that whether children are educated in faith or non-faith schools, the education must include tolerance of other faiths and cultures. We should concentrate on that challenge rather than on types of school. We have many popular schools that local parents want to continue, as I know from my experience and that of my wife. A statement from faith leaders on 7 February this year said,

It is vital that that happens. It is important that all schools—faith and non-faith—seek to build links with other faith and non-faith schools. If that happens—it is happening in my constituency—there will be better understanding and integration.

I commend the Government on outlawing interviewing to establish parents’ religious commitment, which was long overdue. Such interviews are unnecessary and our concern was that it left the door open to selection for other reasons. As the Minister well knows, we are worried that the new Bill will lead to selection by ability, class or background. He disagrees, but our worries remain. I think we all agree that faith schools must not be used to allow selection by the back door and we must be mindful of that.

The challenge for all of us is to support an education system that promotes tolerance, understanding and co-operation, and allows us to maintain our individual identities but contributes to the wider and multicultural and multi-faith society that we live in.

3.39 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this
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important debate. The issue has been at the forefront of many people’s minds during the past week, and it is one on which the hon. Gentleman has a long track record.

Faith schools have been a part of Britain’s state education system since its beginnings. Some of the first free schools were established by the Christian Churches, and the Education Act 1944 protected and encouraged their development. I am only sorry that the hon. Gentleman has fallen out so badly with the origins of our state education system. Almost one third of schools are faith based.

We must appreciate that faith schools have been successful. Most parents who choose those schools for their children do so because they value the ethos and the religious education that they provide while still adhering to the national curriculum. Those issues must be a matter for parents rather than for the state. The record of faith schools is impressive. They produce results that are on average several percentage points higher than non-faith schools at primary and secondary level. Of the top 200 comprehensive schools, 42 per cent. are faith schools, even though faith schools represent only 17 per cent. of the total number of comprehensives.

The hon. Gentleman argues that when we takeinto account free school meals, for example, those schools are not as successful as the raw figures show. However, that is not true. A written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) on28 November 2005 from the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), the then Minister for Schools, showed that the percentage of pupils receiving free school meals and achieving five or more good GCSEs was better in faith schools than in non-faith schools. One could pick any example from the tables that the Minister provided, but I shall offer the hon. Gentleman only one. In 2004, of schools with 35.1 per cent. and50 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, whereas in faith schools 36 per cent. of such pupils did so. Similar figures throughout the table contradict the hon. Gentleman’s assertion.

Dr. Harris: The answer that the hon. Gentleman reads out referred not to students on free school meals and their results, but to schools with a percentage of children on free school meals and their overall results. I do not think that that answer was broken down into children who receive a free school meal and children who do not. The overall difference is marginal and it may be due to other factors. I urge him to consider that point.

Mr. Gibb: I shall, for free, send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the answer, and when he considers it in detail he will see that it backs up my argument.

The debate on faith schools in recent weeks has also focused on their effect on community cohesion. Catholic schools, in particular, pride themselves on how they are socially integrated. Again, based on free school meals, pupils in Catholic schools come from broadly similar backgrounds to pupils in other schools, and the proportions of pupils with special educational needs are similar to those in other schools. Indeed, they are slightly higher in Catholic secondary schools. The proportions of pupils from minority ethnic groups are also higher in Catholic schools.

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Although parents should have the right to choose a faith school, we cannot be oblivious to the danger that educating a section of society in schools that are exclusively reserved for children of a particular religion may be divisive and undermine social cohesion. We have heard views from some quarters who say that allowing Muslim schools to become established may foster segregation and racial mistrust. I do not accept that argument, and neither does my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who has provided us with an incisive summary of the issues.

We cannot have a system in which some faiths are permitted to receive state funding and others are forbidden. Islam is one of the world’s great religions and it is central to the lives of more than 1.5 million British citizens. As demand grows from faithful parents for the state to recognise, support and foster Muslim schools, so the Government are right to let them become part of the state sector and play the same role as Church of England schools, Catholic schools and Jewish schools. Muslim parents, Sikhs—there are two Sikh schools—and Hindus should have the same rights as Christian parents to send their children to schools that select their intake on the basis of faith.

I am unsure about whether segregation can be said to depend exclusively on faith. In many areas, schools are segregated because communities are segregated, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon concedes. There are wealthy areas where schools are socially homogeneous. Indeed, in wealthier areas, schools that select by faith often attract more socially diverse pupils than they would were they to select solely by catchment area.

Dr. Kumar: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gibb: I will not, because I have only a few minutes left. I am sorry.

What matters is that faith schools recognise their social responsibility to promote community cohesion. For that reason, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, in his speech to the Conservative party conference last month, praised the Church of England’s decision to offer at least 25 per cent. of places to children with no requirement that they come from families of practising Christians. That decision was about a group in society taking the action that it felt best and acting in a socially responsible manner. The Church of England made its decision because it thought it was the right thing to do. It would be fundamentally wrong and damaging to community relations to legislate to force faith schools to accept pupils of a different faith or of no faith at all, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon proposes.

That is why we disagreed with the amendment to the Education and Inspections Bill, tabled by Lord Baker, which would have required any new faith school to offer at least 25 per cent. of its places to pupils

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