some default text...
Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Amendment No. 16 deals with of admissions to Church and other faith schools, which has been much discussed in your Lordships’ House and in the other place, as well as in the media. The Church of England’s position is clear: we are strongly committed to providing schools that are distinctively Christian and that are at the same inclusive. We see no opposition between these two aims. Part of a school’s

17 Oct 2006 : Column 698

Christian commitment is to reach out to include the wider community, not for the purpose of indoctrination, but in order to offer education clearly based on Christian values. Church of England schools also aim to nurture in their faith the children of Christian families, to encourage those of other faiths and to challenge those who, rightly and sincerely, claim to have no religious faith whatever.

The Church of England is expanding its number of secondary schools in response to parental demand where communities wish it. The majority of these new schools are serving disadvantaged communities and have inclusive admissions policies. Most give priority to local children or do not admit on the basis of faith. Of the rest, only one has a proportion of places for local, as opposed to faith, priority lower than 50 per cent and that school allocates 33 per cent of places to those of other faiths on a local basis.

Noble Lords may know that I wrote to the Secretary of State earlier this month to make a specific commitment that all new Church of England schools should have at least 20 per cent of places available to children with no requirement that they be of practising Christian families. The places would not be left empty if they were not filled by such children, so this would technically not be a quota, but would be a proportion. That commitment relates explicitly to new Church of England schools. The fact that I have not had an enormously negative postbag since that letter was published suggests to me not that the general public had not read it or heard about it, but rather that what the letter commits the Church to very largely, but not totally, represents current practice in Church of England schools.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, is proposing that all new Church and other faith schools without exception should be required by law to make that commitment. I want to be clear that I do not support his proposal. My voluntary commitment is for the Church of England; it is not a statement of policy for all schools with a religious character. There is no need for legislation in this area, particularly not at this time. I add that the cross I am wearing was made in Aarhus in Denmark for my grandfather by the local goldsmith, Hingelberg, a Jewish firm.

As I have said, the Church supports the provision of more schools by and for minority faith communities. It would not be right to require the same commitment from them. They are themselves a sign of inclusion for their communities and of fledgling potential inclusion gradually over the years. They are not at the same stage as the Church of England schools in this respect. I say that as a statement of fact with which I know they agree rather than to crow. It is because of different social histories. Their very existence promotes community cohesion. Those educated at such schools will develop in self-respect within their own religious identity and thus in respect for others. Members of the community looking on from outside will also develop greater self-respect and respect for others as they see their religious community taking its full place in British society. That is in tune with the more positive aspects of the public debate around these issues. All this would be further enhanced by the development of

17 Oct 2006 : Column 699

robust and effective educational links between schools of a different character, which is very important. I welcome the commitment made by my friend the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, that Catholic schools will be inspected on such links. I would like to see government support for such links between all schools.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, will not seek to test the opinion of the House on his amendment. I believe that it would send profoundly negative signals at this time to members of some of the other faith communities, the overwhelming majority of whom are decent and trustworthy and may well be somewhat bewildered at the fear and resentment they seem to arouse.

I now turn to the two amendments in this group on collective worship and religious education. In May, the Churches’ Joint Education Policy Committee, an inter-church body that I have the privilege of chairing, agreed a position paper on school collective worship. All the Churches’ representatives agreed that we strongly support the continuation of collective worship in all schools, recognising the major contribution it makes to the spiritual and moral development of pupils, which is a prime goal of education. We recognise that other faith groups saw collective worship to be of benefit, even though its emphasis was mainly Christian. We look for government support to improve the quality of the acts of collective worship and to ensure that all pupils are able to attend meaningful acts of worship at school. The way we do things now could be imaginatively improved—as they could have been 500 years ago when I was at school.

It will be no surprise, therefore, that I shall not support the amendment in the names of the noble Baronesses—good friends of mine though they are—to remove the requirement for worship and replace it with an opportunity for spiritual and moral development. I believe prayer and worship to be a fundamental human instinct, however it is located within the religious spectrum, one that should be given expression and developed as part of people’s education and as every pupil's entitlement in school, providing an important grammar and language for later life, even if the specific theological tenets are rejected. It is part of our common culture—changing, yes, but there. That would clearly not be the case through an assembly that gave no opportunity for prayer or worship.

Everyone in their lives faces times of personal pain and sadness, whether through their own health problems or those of others close to them, or some community tragedy. We saw at Soham a few years ago, and we have seen in response to other tragedies, how the whole community comes together to pray and worship. Those who have never experienced the tradition of prayer and worship in school, unless they found it in their family and church, are at a disadvantage in those circumstances—although I know that that view is not universally shared.



17 Oct 2006 : Column 700

I find the provision for pupils to exclude themselves from RE the most baffling of all. It strikes at the very heart of what many of us, of whatever religious faith or none, are trying to develop in the current education system of our country at this stage in our history. I emphasise “at this stage in our history”. Whether one takes a specifically religious view of reality or a functional approach to what broad-based religious education can in the long term achieve for society as a whole, religious education is vital to the educational enterprise. In no school should religious education be about indoctrination. Those days have long gone. All church and other faith schools have committed themselves to teaching in religious education about other faiths as well as their own. We on these Benches would strongly oppose the provision in this amendment. We feel that it would send out the signal that the subject does not really matter precisely when it is increasing in popularity.

I will say a word on the Government's amendment on the right of sixth-formers to decide whether to take part in collective worship at school. By freely choosing to study in a school sixth form, pupils with the support of their parents are deciding to submit themselves to the rules and regulations of the school in question and of schools in general. It is therefore arguable that, while those of compulsory school age should be able to be withdrawn from collective worship, that right should not be available to sixth-formers.

However, if the amendment is approved, I would like it—and I know this view will be shared by others—to be made very clear in the DfES guidance to schools that daily collective worship is part of normal practice in sixth forms, it must be offered by the schools, and sixth-formers cannot withdraw from it casually. That should mean that at the very least, as in the case of parental withdrawal, a letter must be written to the head asking for permission to withdraw from collective worship. While it is recognised that heads cannot withhold permission, this should ensure that the matter is understood to be serious. Guidance should make it clear that it would be perfectly appropriate for a head to ask for an explanation of the pupil’s reason for the request. An alternative educational or community activity should be specified to take place at the same time as the act of worship, which is entirely reasonable.

If I can be given assurances on these matters, I shall not oppose the Government’s amendments. Meanwhile, I beg to move.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, Amendment No. 16 stands in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Lords, Lord Skidelsky and Lord Taverne. Before addressing the arguments, perhaps I may say on behalf of the House what a pleasure it is to see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth back with us. We know that he has been seriously ill and his return today is due, I suspect, not only to the skill of his doctors but to the effectiveness of prayer.



17 Oct 2006 : Column 701

This is the third time this year that this House has debated faith schools. The first occasion was on an Unstarred Question by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, in February, and the second was during the Committee stage of this Bill on 18 July, when I moved an amendment for a quota of 30 per cent of places in faith schools for non-faith children. We are debating it again today, and, as the Government have indicated that they will bring forward amendments on this issue for Third Reading on 30 October, there will be a fourth time. So we have debated this matter infinitely more than the House of Commons did. It is a credit to the House that on an important matter of such major interest we have provided a focus for a national debate.

When I moved my amendment in July, no one spoke in favour of exclusive faith schools. The Minister was not entirely hostile to the proposition, but I would describe his attitude as cool. He said that,

Having recently attended a seminar when he spoke on private and public education, where inclusiveness was in his every second sentence, I know that inclusion runs in his veins. As he is the most intelligent Minister in his department—I hope that that does not entirely blight his career—he has probably had considerable influence in moving the Government to a change of opinion on this. We learnt about that in the leak of a Cabinet paper, no less, to the Sunday Times. I suspect that that leak will not be examined by the Cabinet Secretary because it not only had the fingerprints of the Secretary of State, but it had his name in the second line. I seem to remember that we were rather more subtle in Government, but that was a long time ago. It is clear from the leak that the Government are moving and have moved considerably on this matter. One should ask why this has happened. It has happened for two reasons.

Over the past 50 years in our society, successive Governments and community leaders have been grappling with the problems of race and colour. Tremendous progress has been made towards eliminating prejudice. The battle is not entirely won, but it is a great credit to our society that we have coped with those problems. Religion has not been centre stage; over the past 40 or 50 years everybody has been able to practice their own religion with complete freedom. It is one of the basic freedoms of our country. What has become more evident in the past few years is how religion can separate societies. The debate this summer, which probably started with the cartoons of Muhammad while the latest manifestation is Jack Straw and the veil, indicates that this is a matter of real concern which the Government now appreciate.

The second reason why the Government have changed is what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth has just said. At the beginning of October he said that in future the Church of England would give priority to 20 per cent of pupils from other faiths or no faiths for new Anglican schools. Do I have that right?



17 Oct 2006 : Column 702

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, it is indeed 25 per cent, and I speak, I hope, as a hopeless mathematician.

6.30 pm

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate says 25 per cent but Hansard will reveal that he said “20 per cent” in his speech. Any advance on that would be very welcome. That 25 per cent is a very wise and sensible move. I went to a Church of England primary school, Holy Trinity in Southport, during the war. It was totally inclusive. My closest friend was a Jewish boy. I learnt about the Jewish faith by going to his home on Fridays. It was my brand of Anglicanism, not too proselytising and not too fervent. We went to church twice a year and we started every day with a hymn and a prayer, but I think that most schools did in those days.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, that reflects the practice of the Church of England today. He then hesitated—I understand why—before saying, “We are following the right path, but I do not to want to force any of the other religions in our country to follow my path”. That reminded me of the description of Mr Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens, when Dickens said that he was like a signpost: always pointing the way but never going. That is not entirely fair, because the Church of England is going, but although the road is so great and wonderful, it is not going to twist the arms of other religions to go down it with it. I understand its view.

My amendment would mean that we would follow the Church of England’s example and apply it to other schools. I think that it is worth reminding the House of the argument for inclusion. It is wrong to divide children by religion at the ages of five and 11. Where that has happened in societies such as Northern Ireland, that crop has produced a savage harvest. The comparison with Northern Ireland is fair. There is great intransigence, but there is now hope in that country because community schools are being established in which there are 40 per cent Catholics, 40 per cent Protestants and 20 per cent others. I have talked to the prime mover of that in Northern Ireland and it is a very inspiring move indeed.

The second reason why inclusion is so good was expressed very clearly by Rabbi Romain, the rabbi of the synagogue in Maidenhead, when he said:

Of course, he is not alone in that. The NUT strongly supports inclusion. So does Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality. David Bell, a former Chief Inspector of Schools, reported only two years ago that,

Then there is Amartya Sen, who was the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and who won the Nobel

17 Oct 2006 : Column 703

prize for his distinguished writing on identity and violence. He has made the point again and again that you should not characterise people by one thing—Christian, Hindu or Muslim—or by their race or nationality. To put people in pens like that is a denial of human character, for the simple reason that each one of us is subject to a variety of influences of all sorts that affect our development. He thinks that that is very damaging. He said:

I strongly support his words.

The last person whom I pray in evidence for inclusion is Mr Cantle of the Cantle report. Your Lordships will remember the race riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley and the Cantle report spoke in rather chilling terms of “parallel and polarised lives”. He said:

He recommended that in all schools 25 per cent—one quarter—of places should be available to other faiths.

I point out that my amendment relates only to new schools. It is too ambitious to try to move legislation to change what is in fact the educational settlement of our country. I hope that many existing faith schools will follow the example given by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, but the amendment specifically relates to new faith schools. There is a problem and we should not add to it.

In parenthesis, the department should know much more about the existing faith schools that have been created. I have taken an interest in this, but although you can get a lot of information from the department's website about selection criteria, the department does not seem to know much about the schools. One new Muslim school told me that it had to send in photographs of its children—which is, of course, illegal. The department should watch that much more carefully, not just in the case of Muslim schools but of all schools. It was a BBC programme that revealed that the curriculum in some faith schools was being very marginally followed. In one of them, European history was not being taught at all.

I turn to two groups who are very concerned about the amendment. First, there are the Roman Catholics. The first point to recognise is that many Roman Catholic schools today are inclusive. In secondary schools, 20 per cent of pupils come from other faiths. The Catholic Church does not look on that as a disadvantage or a curse but an opportunity to try to persuade those children to take a greater interest in religion. I think that the proportion in primary schools is about 17 per cent. Secondly, the amendment affects only new schools. I do not believe that there are any proposals to start any new Catholic secondary schools. Since 1997, there have been only two new Catholic faith schools—two primary schools, one in Milton Keynes and one in Cornwall—so the Catholic Church

17 Oct 2006 : Column 704

has not made a great advance in establishing new schools. I also point out the encouraging change of attitude that, for example, allows one of the new faith academies in Liverpool to be both Catholic and Anglican. That is very welcome.

Perhaps I can say something about the Muslims. I have a high regard for Islam; I have read parts of the Koran. To describe the Islamic faith as purely concerned with violence is a total and ridiculous parody. All religions are capable of being distorted by their extremists. There have been six exclusive Muslim schools since the Government introduced the provision and they all have the purpose of creating total Muslim personalities through the training of children's spirits, intelligence, feelings and bodily senses. I have no particular quarrel with that, but that should be done in the mosque. If that is the object of Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Jewish schools, it should be done in the synagogue, the church or the temple. I should have thought that one purpose of the British education system is to try to create a British personality.

The argument that is put, which I can quite understand, is that there are about 120 private Muslim schools, many of which provide pretty deplorable education and would certainly benefit from state funding. I see that the former Secretary of State for Education is nodding. I am sure that that is right. But if there is a request for public funding, it is entirely appropriate that the state should determine some standards and conditions to be met.

I say to the leaders of the Muslim community who have influence in our society—

A noble Lord: They are not here.

Lord Baker of Dorking: That is their choice.

I say to the leaders of the Muslim community: is it really wise to promote the proliferation of exclusively Muslim schools in Muslim communities? Let us suppose that four primary schools are set up quite quickly in a Muslim community, to be followed by two or three secondary schools. Supported by their mosques, that community will become very closed and inward-looking. Children from outside will not be welcomed or, if they are welcome, they will not want to go in. That strongly reinforces separateness in our society.

One lesson that we have learnt as a country from migration not only in this century but over several centuries is that the migrant groups who settle most successfully are those who mingle, mix and merge. There is no better example of that than the Jewish community which came in during the 19th and20th centuries. What we are debating is not just a matter of what is taught about religion in schools; it is the shape of our society in many towns and cities during the next 50 years. I would like that shape not to be separate, divided, isolated, jealous and envious; I would like it to be cohesive, harmonious, integrated, tolerant and generous. I commend the amendment.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and join him in welcoming back the right reverend

17 Oct 2006 : Column 705

Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, for whom I have immense affection and respect, even though I fundamentally disagree with him on most occasions. I also thank the Minister for listening and responding to concerns. I have more questions to put to him this evening.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page