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There have been some high profile cases recently where young people have taken the matter into their own hands. This week's Times Educational Supplement has a story on its front page about some schools trying to impose their religious values on young people. Some 100 pupils signed a petition protesting at the decision to invite a pro-life campaigner to lecture in a school where 17 young people were excluded for a day after they refused to go to Mass and then had to undergo a re-entry interview. Those practices are self-defeating. You cannot impose a religion on anyone and efforts to do so will probably have the opposite effect. If we want young people to take responsibility and act maturely, surely we should respect their rights to decide for themselves on a matter such as this.

I apologise to the Committee that my amendment is not about the same issue as the one which has been debated so fascinatingly this evening, but because we have these enormous non-homogeneous groups of amendments, this sort of thing comes up. I really felt that it was time that I spoke to my amendment in this group, and I hope for a positive response from the Minister.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I would just like to say—

Noble Lords: Minister!

Lord Adonis: I think that it is the wish of the Committee that I should now respond to the debate.

This has been an excellent if emotive debate giving a good deal of food for reflection hereafter. I will start in the spirit of peace and goodwill. After much ministerial deliberation and reflection, we accept most of the spirit of Amendment No. 217A moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, to which she has just spoken. Pupils aged over 16 should be able to withdraw themselves from collective worship rather than it being a matter for parental consent, as it is for 16 year-olds and under. We will discuss that further with our partners in the faith communities and beyond, but I will seek to move an appropriate amendment at Report.

Beyond that, we do not think it right to reopen the whole issue of collective worship on which there is a fairly broad consensus within the educational and faith communities. I say broad rather than universal because nothing pertaining to faith has universal consensus, and I deeply respect the views of my noble friend Lady Massey on this issue. However, in the context of the right of parents to withdraw their children, the flexibilities that schools have in respect of the diversity of their communities and the way that they conduct collective worship, we do not see a case for a wider change.

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I can respond to Amendment No. 83, in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough, in an equally consensual spirit. We certainly agree that anyone contemplating proposals to close schools should consider the effect on diversity in the area concerned and in particular if there would be a reduction in the choice of schools with a religious character. Statutory guidance makes it clear that in deciding proposals to close schools of a religious character, the decision maker—currently the school organisation committee but it will become the local authority, to accompany the school adjudicator —should consider the effect that this will have on the balance of denominational provision in the area. The guidance goes on to say that parental demand and the standards of the school should also be taken into account. We will aim to retain these protections in the guidance to be issued under the Bill on which we will consult fully.

On faith schools, two broad propositions have been put before us. The first is that there should be no more within the state sector, which is in Amendment No. 81 tabled by my noble friend Lady Massey. The second is the proposition that there should be a greater diversity in admissions, which was broadly the proposal of the noble Lords, Lord Baker and Lord Lucas. These are issues on which there are strongly held, passionate views on all sides, which the Government deeply respect. Our job is to take a position which we believe to be consistent with the public interest. I want to set out our position as briefly as I can.

Taking the right to establish faith schools first, the Government believe it would unacceptably infringe the rights of parents in local communities to havea ban on the establishment of new faith schools. Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides for the right for parents to have their children educated in accordance with their religion and other views.

Throughout the history of state education in this country, which of course predates the ECHR, Parliament has recognised this basic right and has accordingly agreed to the state funding of appropriately regulated faith schools over and above allowing private faith schools which, apart from closure for reasons of unacceptably poor standards, could only be closed by a fundamental breach of the ECHR.

But our position is not just a question of the ECHR and historical commitments, important as they are. My party has explicitly supported the right of parents within proper local decision-making processes to establish state-funded state schools within the current regulatory system. Our 2005 manifesto said:

And I should add proper local consultation and decision-making.

That was the manifesto on which we were elected and we intend to stick to it. I could not put the arguments better than did my noble friend Lady Morris, who was Secretary of State when amendments to the

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Education Bill 2002 were debated in another place—amendments which, like some of those moved today, would have obliged state faith schools to change their admissions criteria to restrict faith-based admissions. My noble friend, who I was glad to see in her place earlier, said:

My noble friend went on to say:

I could not put those arguments stronger myself and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, made some very good points about the benefits. Parents want such schools to be in the maintained sector rather than in the wholly private sector. My noble friend Lord Ahmed made an impassioned speech on this point and I believe that his arguments merit close attention.

In the maintained sector, there are no fees. In the private sector, there are fees. In the maintained sector, schools must operate any admissions criteria that comply with the School Admissions Code of Practice. In the independent sector, they do have to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act but they have much wider latitude. In the maintained sector, faith schools must have a governing body, including parent, teacher and community representation. In the independent sector, that is not the case. In the maintained sector, schools must employ teachers who have qualified teacher status and head teachers who have the National Professional Qualification for Headship. In the independent sector, they need do neither. In the maintained sector, schools must employ teachers according to the state School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document and accord them pay and conditions, including pension rights, on this basis. In the private sector, they need do none of these things, and indeed pay rates often in private Muslim schools, which my noble friend referred to, are much lower than they are in state schools. These are all arguments which should be weighed in the balance when local decision-makers decide.

It is their decisions, not the decisions of central Government, that hold whether it is appropriate for Muslim schools to be able to enter the state system.

8.30 pm

The Earl of Onslow: The noble Lord, Lord Baker, produced some extremely interesting conditions in Muslim schools that had to be fulfilled, such as how many bits of the Koran pupils could recite, how much they knew, had they read it, et cetera. If they were to

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produce rules whereby girls had to wear the veil, how does one expect that non-Muslims would want to send their children there? It is that exclusivity that worries one. Will the Government make sure that those admission policies cited by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and my hypothesis on the veil are not allowed, because that would be extremely exclusive and offensive to the host community?

Lord Adonis: I was just about to move on to admissions, which is the second big subject before us.

We do not support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, although I understandthe concerns that led to it. It is not clear to us how the amendment would work in practice; if he intends to bring it back on Report, as I think that he might, it would be useful for the House to know more about what he intends. He referred to the two Christian faiths; I am not a theologian—I leave those matters to my right reverend friends—but I understand that there is one Christian faith. That is an issue of some importance, because the practical effect of his amendment is that schools should be required to admit 30 per cent of pupils who,

We need to be clear what he means by the “religion of the school”—the denomination or the religion.

There are some big issues here. I highlight that problem, but there will be many others; in fact, a whole set of practical issues will emerge in seeking to have quotas of the kind that he intends. In the course of good legislation and good government, those problems will be difficult to resolve, and we will point them out if the amendment comes back on Report. If it were passed, it would apply to every faith school. If we did not have answers to many of those acute practical issues, it would be a severe impediment to the implementation of the law.

Lord Baker of Dorking: Perhaps the Minister’s officials will give some thought to my proposals. After all, the Government are happy to impose a system of quotas for universities, where they define the numbers quite precisely. I will have a go myself at how the quotas in my proposals would work, but I am sure that his officials could design it.

Lord Adonis: We do not have any faith quotas in respect of universities, and I cannot for the life of me imagine how we would start to devise them.

There is an issue about the practicality of what the noble Lord proposes. I noted that, in the course of the debate, he and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, appeared to accept that some minority faith schools might not think that their own requirements in terms of quotas applied. If that is the case, we would need to have that view elucidated before any proposition was before us that we could consider seriously.

The fact that we do not think it appropriate to introduce legislation of this kind does not mean that we do not share the view of the faith communities themselves that their schools should be inclusive, including

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being open as appropriate to other faiths and taking very seriously their obligations to have strong community engagement with all faith and non-faith elements of their local community. An increasing proportion of Christian faith schools are doing that, including allowing a greater diversity of admissions.

I shall briefly point out two facts. Provisional figures as at January 2006 show that 21 per cent of children attending Roman Catholic secondary schools and 17.5 per cent of pupils attending Church of England schools are from ethnic minorities, compared with 16.2 per cent for non-faith schools. That appears indicative of a growing diversity of admissions to the Christian faith schools, and does not by itself support an argument that there is a serious problem of exclusivity. The figures in respect of free school meals show the same.

The research by Professor David Jesson at the University of York shows that voluntary aided—that is, predominantly church—and non-voluntary-aided secondary schools taken as a whole show almost identical levels of eligibility for free school meals which is a proxy for deprivation and does not seem to indicate that faith schools are discriminating against the poor.

These are all issues to be weighed in a further debate if the noble Lord, Lord Baker, were to bring back his amendment. The Government could not possibly support unworkable propositions which would seek to impose quotas against the wishes of the faith communities and which we do not believe could be fairly implemented in practice.

Amendment No. 208, in the name of my noble friend Lady Whitaker, would require every locally agreed syllabus for religious education to take account of the teaching and practices of the principal “beliefs” represented in Great Britain, including secular beliefs.

The current situation is that locally agreed syllabuses must reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian while taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain. The agreed syllabus conferences which draw up RE syllabuses for schools without a religious character are already able to reflect the study of secular beliefs as part of a syllabus. Indeed, my department’s non-statutory framework for religious education, which has been endorsed by all the major faith communities, highlights opportunities to study and discuss secular beliefs as well as religious beliefs.

The second part of my noble friend’s amendment would mean that all schools with a religious character, including voluntary-aided schools, would adopt the locally agreed syllabus unless parents request that they provide religious education in accordance with the trust deed or tenets of the school. To enforce such a requirement in respect of all faith schools would be an infringement of the legitimate autonomy of voluntary-aided schools with a religious character. However, the Government are glad to note that the leaders of all the major faith communities agreed earlier this year that they would ensure that,

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That path-breaking statement by the leaders of all the major religions in our country bears citing more fully in order to respond to the wider issues raised in the debate. The faith leaders agreed that religious education should enable pupils to develop respect for and sensitivity to others and in particular those whose faith and beliefs are different from their own. It should promote discernment and enable pupils to combat prejudice.

Those are objectives we warmly endorse. I believe that they will commend themselves to the House.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: When I began speaking two hours ago, I had thought that we would have concluded the debate before now. It has been a fascinating and a most encouraging debate. I shall need conversations with many people across the House, in particular with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, about his amendments.

I am confused about one or two matters. The right reverend Prelate said that we should not impose integration. Does that mean that we should impose segregation? I still think that faith schools can divide communities; and that is dangerous. We have sometimes confused religious diversity with ethnic diversity. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, I do not think that we do any favours to children who come into this country by segregating them. At my school, which is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith school, children learn language and social skills rapidly when they come into the school from abroad.

The issue of parental choice for a faith school can be a choice for a nice, white, middle-class school. We all know the contortions some parents go through in order to get their children into such a school. My noble friend Lord Ahmed—again, I shall need conversation with him—said that he did not want to be divisive. Two things happen. It may be divisive to send a child to a faith school in the community. Alternatively, some children are moved from the community in order to go to faith schools which are miles away. Either way, I do not think that that is good for communities.

On collective worship, I agree with everything the right reverend Prelate said, except the religious bits. I am sorry the Minister cannot accept this amendment. I am certainly not implying that young people in Muslim schools were involved in disturbances or become terrorists, and I am not suggesting that the closure of current faith schools should be attempted. We need to see where we take these amendments—mine and that of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and others—on the whole issue of faith schools in a community and trying not to segregate.

Finally, I must say that tonight we have provided an excellent example of how discussions across faiths can be productive, and I would wish the same for all schools. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

Clause 15 [Proposals for discontinuance of schools maintained by local education authority]:

[Amendments Nos. 82 to 84 not moved.]

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Clause 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 [Direction requiring discontinuance of community or foundation special school]:

[Amendments Nos. 85 and 86 not moved.]

Clause 17 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Proposals for establishment or discontinuance of schools in England]:

[Amendments Nos. 87 to 89 not moved.]

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 18 [Alterations that may be made under section 19]:

[Amendments Nos. 90 and 91 not moved.]

Baroness Crawley: I think that this is an appropriate moment to break. I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 9.41 pm.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: Before the Motion is put, could we please ask for a business statement to be made when we reassemble in one hour’s time?

Baroness Crawley: I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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