Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Chaytor: The issue is a difficult one. At some point, if not today, the Government and the major faiths need to agree a comprehensive statement on the precise balance between the role of propagating the
2 Nov 2006 : Column 489
faith and the role of delivering high quality education. I am not saying that it is a simple matter in which the distinctions are always clear, but it seems to me that the most powerful argument in favour of the compromise agreement on admitting children not of the faith, which the Secretary of State has worked hard to achieve, is that children who are not of the faith should not be subjected to a religious interpretation that is at odds with their own assumptions or their parents’ belief. It is entirely in the spirit of the promotion of community cohesion that diversity of beliefs is allowed to flourish within a school.

Perhaps we should have considered this issue in more detail in Committee, but at that point, sadly, the concept of the 25 per cent. quota was not on the agenda. However, even though we are coming to it quite late in the day, it would be helpful if my right hon. Friend said something about it now. Perhaps he will also reflect on whether there is a need for further discussion between the Government and the major faiths so that they can agree some sort of protocol that will give schools effective guidance on how to handle such matters.

Mr. Mahmood: Many hon. Members have spoken about faith schools and I shall do so, too, but first I wish to discuss the many state schools in inner-city areas where the vast majority of pupils come from ethnic minority communities, and how we deal with issues of social cohesion in those schools.

I attended a comprehensive school in Sparkbrook in Birmingham—an area where there was not a great mix. One of the things that our teachers did was form a rugby club—it was set up by two Welshmen and an Englishman: Mr. Duggan, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Burton. We played rugby against other schools, most of them outside the inner cities. One of the first schools that we played was a private school, which we beat, so that was a good result for us. Those teachers had a commitment to ensuring that we achieved the integration that all of us deserve in this society.

Although several hon. Members have spoken about religious schools, it should be recognised that only a limited number of pupils go to faith schools. A huge number of pupils in our communities do not. Community cohesion is an issue in schools where there are large numbers of pupils from the ethnic minorities and a limited amount of mix. In north-west Birmingham, we deal with cohesion through cluster programmes and through the learning and schools council and the local education authority. We have built up relationships between schools in the area so that they work together and support each other. Rather than segregating schools in the area, we try and get them working together. That has a far better effect.

There are positive measures in the Bill relating to inspection criteria for community cohesion and understanding. The argument is not about multiculturalism or community relations, it is about how we improve the education of those young people and get them to interact with their peers in different parts of our society and our community and in different geographical areas. That is the fundamental issue that the Bill addresses, and it is why I support it.
2 Nov 2006 : Column 490
We need to allow such experience to be gained so that we can formulate best practice. I should be happy for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to come to Birmingham and see some of the good work that has been done. I commend the proposals in the Bill.

Alan Johnson: I shall deal with some of the questions that were raised before turning to the wider issues—how community cohesion will work and how the 25 per cent. will work. I will take a few moments, in the hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) will return to the Chamber, as he asked me some important questions.

On the admissions code, I can tell the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that we plan to make it clear that the arrangements for introducing not of that faith into faith schools will be voluntary. If we did so by regulation, that could end up being compulsory. On the question whether we are making any changes to the code that will affect existing schools, the answer is no.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) asked an important question about co-operation with children’s services. It will be downto the governing body to decide how it promotes well-being, but in doing so it must have regard to the local children and young people’s plan provided for in the Bill. The plan will cover the need to work with the full range of children’s services. On the other important point that the hon. Lady raised, Ofsted will look at schools’ collaboration with other schools and partners. That is included in their self-evaluation framework, which is why the endorsement of Christine Gilbert, the new inspector of schools, was so important. Her letter in reply to my noble Friend Lord Adonis made it clear that Ofsted welcomes the proposal and can make it work.

I shall spend a little time on the two main aspects. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that the propositions emerged in the other place. That was one of the problems with the 25 per cent. quota—for want of a better term. It made us realise the need for proper consultation. When we sat down with the faith groups and started to talk the issue through, we found, first, that it was unwise to proceed with that as a compulsory measure, and secondly, that there was a consensus on a number of matters.

I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North that that is not the end of the discussions with the faith groups. We started a valuable discussion, which we have agreed to continue. Let me set out who was represented in those discussions. We had, among others, the director of education of the Church of England Board of Education, the director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, two representatives of the Association of Muslim Schools, and the director of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, all sitting around a table having a conversation about how we improve community cohesion.

1.15 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Were secular organisations invited to those discussions?


2 Nov 2006 : Column 491

Alan Johnson: That would have been slightly perverse. We were looking to see how faith groups could integrate better and how greater community cohesion could be achieved. We knew what the view of the National Secular Society would be—that we should not have faith groups in the first place. I do not share that view and it is not the subject of debate today. Faith schools exist, and I believe they perform an important role in our education system. The question has to be how we can ensure greater community cohesion and better integration.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend saying that he believes that the National Secular Society, for example, has nothing to say about promoting greater community cohesion?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend raises a good point. No, I was not saying that. I was saying that it would have been rather perverse to have secular groups round that table, because we were discussing how faith schools can better integrate. I will, of course, have a separate discussion with the National Secular Society.

What did we find out in those discussions? We found out from Muslim representatives that as a matter of policy they would want between 20 and 25 per cent. of pupils in Muslim schools to come from outside the Muslim faith. They said, with a good deal of justification, I think, that their problem was the way their schools and the faith were misrepresented. They welcomed the opportunity to have the discussion about how we can take matters forward. We could make enormous progress on a voluntary basis. If we had continued to move down the road of compulsion, I do not think we would have had the same spirit of co-operation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East put his finger on the two main issues—with the 25 per cent. of children from outside the faith coming into faith schools, what will happen with religious education, and what will happen to the ethos of the school? He spoke as though that was not already happening.

I make three important points. First, 30 per cent. of the students in Catholic schools are not from the Catholic faith. Secondly, at the King David school in Liverpool, a Jewish school, the majority of the students—never mind 20 or 30 per cent.—are not of the Jewish faith. It is an excellent school that received a brilliant Ofsted report and is working very well. Thirdly, the St. Francis of Assisi academy in Liverpool was set up as 50 per cent. Catholic and 50 per cent. Anglican in one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool. It is a brilliant school. In schools throughout the country, we have day in, day out the experience of parents not from that faith choosing faith schools. My message to my hon. Friend is that nothing has changed in that respect.

On the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), sometimes—rarely—parents do not have a choice about sending their children to those schools, but usually they want to send their children there because of the ethos of the school. Muslim parents send their children to Catholic schools because they like the ethos of the school. That happens right across faiths, so we must not talk as though there is a
2 Nov 2006 : Column 492
great problem that needs to be resolved. The problems are being resolved daily by good practice in existing schools.

Mr. Purchase: Does the Secretary of State accept that this is a multi-layered matter? There are compelling pieces of work showing that outcomes at schools are mainly determined first, by the determination of parents to ensure that their children do well, secondly, by experienced teachers, and thirdly, by good buildings and so on. The rest hardly matters. I have never come across any piece of work suggesting that outcomes are better in faith schools than anywhere else because of the faith element. The schools that he mentions will probably have these inputs: fairly bright children; a degree of selection, dare I say; and good buildings and good quality all round. Does he accept that those deliver the outcomes that we all so desperately want for all our children?

Alan Johnson: I do not think that my hon. Friend can support an argument that faith schools have worse results as a question of faith. Evidence shows that there is a premium in terms of educational outcomes at all faith schools, whether Sikh, Jewish or whatever. I will not make that argument because issues other than faith are involved. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of good parenting, good leadership, good teachers and so on, but he is trying to turn the issue into one of our opening up something that we should not in respect of voluntary agreements. My point is based on the incontrovertible fact that 30 per cent. of students in Catholic schools are not from the Catholic faith. If my hon. Friend needs any more examples, there are good ones all over the country. Eighty per cent. of pupils at Sir John Cass’s Foundation and Red Coat Church of England secondary school in Tower Hamlets are Muslim. Lord Ahmed made an excellent contribution in the House of Lords in which he pointed out that in many C of E schools 98 per cent. of the students are from the Muslim faith or a minority faith. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a multi-layered problem, but he gives the impression that he is seeing spectres, ghosts and shadows where they do not exist.

The second point was how we ensure that Ofsted can consider community cohesion. I refer hon. Membersto a document called “Guidance on Community Cohesion”, produced in 2002 by the Local Government Association, the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Inter Faith Network. I counsel those who are worried about this not to be worried. As I said, Ofsted already inspects many aspects of community cohesion. Ever since it was set up, it has been duty bound to report on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils. Everyone, including secularists and faith groups, can unite around community cohesion, provided that we do not use it as a handy phrase and then forget about it. It is important that Ofsted accepts, as it does, that it is able to take this role, and that we continue the discussion on how to have more voluntary agreements.

To echo my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), I want Muslim schools to be keen to ensure that they promote
2 Nov 2006 : Column 493
community cohesion. We must give them the opportunity to do that and talk to them about what barriers prevent them from doing it. We can achieve so much more. This is not the end of the debate—in many ways, it is the beginning. In the context of the Bill, it is a debate about how we can take a voluntary, consensual route. The provisions on community cohesion will help us to do that.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Clause 70


LEAs in England: provision of travel arrangements etc for children

Lords amendment: No. 53.

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 84 and 218 to 222.

Jim Knight: Lords amendments Nos. 53 and 218 to 221 extend the provisions for free school travel for low income groups to include secondary-aged children attending the nearest school preferred on the grounds of religion or belief within a 15-mile radius. Evidence suggests that choice of school, particularly for low income groups, is often restricted by parental concerns about the cost and availability of transport. Forty-one per cent. of parents living in social housing cite travel convenience as the most important reason for choosing a school, compared with only 33 per cent. of owner-occupiers. To create equity in the system, it is crucial that lack of affordable transport be removed as a barrier to choice. While the existing proposals extended rights to free transport for low income groups to one of their three nearest schools, we believe that lack of affordable transport should not stand as a barrier to parents exercising a choice based on their religion or belief—or, in the context of how the law defines belief, their lack of belief.

Lords amendments Nos. 84 and 222 are technical amendments to section 6 of the Transport Act 1985.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): We welcome the amendment, which will support the choices of less well-off parents who want to choose a school on the basis of a religious preference. It reflects the challenges that parents from less well-off backgrounds face in transporting their children to and from school when those schools are not within walking distance. It is also welcome at a time when many local authorities are ceasing denominational travel. The amendment is a welcome supplement to the duty under clause 77 that requires local authorities to have regard to the religious preferences of parents in connection with school travel. Under clause 77—this will interest humanists on the Labour Benches—references to “religion” and “belief” include


2 Nov 2006 : Column 494

or “lack of belief”. The amendment will therefore give less well-off secular parents the right to transport away from a local Church school, just as it gives parents with a faith preference the right to attend the appropriate religious school.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is right, although that has always been the case in law, as has been shown in a court settlement in Lancashire. Does he agree that it is important that the guidance to local authorities produced by the Department should clearly spell out the point that he is making? At the moment it does not do so, and has been subject to criticism by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and others because it will lure LEAs into thinking only of faith schoolsand denominational schools without considering his important point about non-religious parents not wanting their child to go to such a school.

Mr. Gibb: I always regard guidance as a form of tertiary legislation that has no scrutiny in the House, and prefer to use primary legislation if possible.Clause 77 is very clear. New section 509AD(3) defines “religion” as “any religion” and states that

As it is clear in primary legislation, it is unnecessary to have it in guidance as well, although there is no harm in doing so.

The Forum for Rural Children and Young People has said:

Those problems were echoed by the social exclusion unit in its report, “Making the Connections: Final Report on Transport and Social Exclusion”. It noted that, in some areas, children are prevented from taking part in extra-curricular activities because of the lack of public transport at the required time. The Central Council of Physical Recreation states in the report that between 40 and 45 per cent. of pupils in a particular school were missing out on after-school activities due to transport constraints.

1.30 pm

The report also highlighted a more general concern about the availability of transport in rural areas. More than half the people in those areas live more than13 minutes’ walk away from an hourly daytime bus service, and 29 per cent. of rural settlements have no bus service at all. This lack of public transport—combined with the lack, and high cost, of taxis—leaves many people unable to get to key places. All this becomes even more difficult when a local denominational school closes and children are forced to travel even further to attend school.

The remaining amendments in this group amend the Transport Act 1985. They will ensure that school transport is not regulated on the same basis as public transport. In particular, they will give local authorities greater flexibility to vary the times of services. These are not controversial amendments. It is unreasonable to treat school transport used only by pupils at a school as though it were the same as general public transport that is open to all. We support the remaining amendments in the group.


2 Nov 2006 : Column 495

Annette Brooke: I have very little to add to what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has said. I just want to make one or two points. I always hope that people will listen to the points that I make, and that I am not just waffling away for hours on end.

I want to mention large families in relation to this amendment and to all the proposals on school transport. There could be an enormous burden on a family with four or five children which does not qualify for free transport because its income is just over the required level. Such a burden could pull the family back quite considerably. This is particularly relevant in the context of faith schools.

I am also concerned that there is no equity, in terms of choice, between those who live in rural areas and those who live in urban areas. A child living in a rural area is highly unlikely to have a choice of three secondary schools within six miles. Has any thought been given to that matter?

Dr. Evan Harris: I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to add a question for the Minister to the comments that I made in my earlier intervention on the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). I have here a copy of the fourth report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights for the 2005-06 session, which reported on the Equality Bill with specific reference to school transport. The Minister will be aware that a succession of reports from the Joint Committee has flagged up the problem with the existing guidance. I shall quote briefly from the report, as that will be the most succinct way of making my point. Paragraph 49 states:


Next Section Index Home Page