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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 175:

The noble Baroness said: The amendment is grouped with Amendments Nos. 176, 177 and 178A, which will be spoken to by other Members of the Committee.

This amendment is very similar to that on schools forums and it applies the same principle. I know that this is a vexed issue and I suspect that I shall not receive too much support from around the Committee. It would allow local schools and governing bodies to choose whether they want an admission forum to be set up in their area. It is important to give them a view on whether they want one or not; the choice should not be automatic.

In some parts of the country, admissions is not a big issue for local areas. The schools work well together and with the local authorities, and the parents are satisfied. The issues involved in this regard are similar to those raised in our debate on schools forums in that what is right for one area does not necessarily apply to all local authorities. My point is not that it is me, LEAs or the Government who say that there should not be admissions forums automatically, although I believe that. The amendment would allow a majority of the governing bodies of maintained schools in an area to decide that they want an admissions forum. In that case, one would be set up, and that would be right.

If there is a problem with admissions in an area, the schools will be the first to know about that. It is for schools to realise that the problem is sufficient to warrant the setting up of an admission forum. I beg to move.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 176 and 178A, which are in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley.

Amendment No. 176 would insert into the provisions on admission forums the phrase,

    "and city technology colleges, city colleges for the technology of the arts, city academies and academies".

It is needed because the admissions forum, unlike the schools forum, does not echo the boundaries of the LEA; it is a sub-area of most LEA areas. In my own town of Guildford, we already have an informal grouping of schools—they get together and to some extent discuss admissions. Those informal groupings already exist. The amendment would make those informal groupings into more formal groupings—that is what an admission forum will be. That makes sense because genuine problems arise sorting out admissions between secondary schools of different types—for example, with regard to foundation schools and maintained schools. It makes sense for people to get together and to sort out admissions. I have no time for schools forums but admissions forums have a valid function.

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When looking at the overall area, it is important for all schools in the area to be included. At the moment, city technology colleges and city academies are not included although they play an important part in some towns. The admission arrangements in Southwark, for example, will be considerably affected by two new academies, one of which is in place and one of which will be set up very shortly. They are being set up deliberately to serve their local communities and are not to be exclusive in any way. We strongly feel that it is important for such technology colleges and academies to be included in the admissions procedures.

I shall also speak to Amendment No. 178A. We touched on it in our debate on the amendment that was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on faith schools with a religious bias. The amendment emerged from discussions about what, if anything, we should table in Committee on the issue of faith schools. As I said earlier, we should recognise that the concept of a quota is not the right way forward. Nevertheless, we feel that it is right for those schools—which are maintained schools in that they are 100 per cent funded in terms of revenue costs from the public purse—to recognise that questions arise about the community that they serve. We should consider whether it is possible for them to balance the needs of the community with the need to serve the faith community that they represent and which helps to support those schools through capital funds. Within the framework of admission forums, the amendment seeks to balance the requirements of the faith community and suggests that the school should advance proposals on the number of places to be taken up by members of a faith. But, equally, the amendment seeks to ask the admission forum, which must give advice to the local authority on these issues, to take into account not only that but also the need for places in the area and the demand for places in faith-based schools.

Therefore, the amendment is a deliberate attempt to reach what we consider to be a reasonably acceptable compromise. In putting it forward, we held discussions with members of all faiths, including the Muslim faith, and found that it was largely acceptable to them. We hope that it might also find favour with the Committee.

9 p.m.

Lord Jones: I am pleased to follow the reasonable line of questioning in relation to these amendments. My noble friend the Minister will know that this Bill is 214 pages long and that today Her Majesty's Government have proposed two forums. Are any more forums proposed in the Bill?

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I support the arguments which were first put to the Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in Amendment No. 175. In that amendment, the noble Baroness argued that whether or not an admission forum is established should be a matter for local discretion. That is logical and consistent and coherent with the arguments that

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she advanced earlier in our proceedings in the context of schools forums being a matter for local decision-making.

I believe that, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, we should trust schools to work these matters out for themselves. I agree with the noble Baroness. I can recollect instances where admissions policies became very hot political questions in a locality and in other parts—indeed, in the very same city—they had never been an issue at all. Whether or not they were hot political questions depended very much on where one lived and what the catchment areas were. If there were local demand for such a forum, it could be innovative and helpful. Therefore, I believe that the Government are on to a point here and one which, if there is local demand for it, should be met.

I believe that that approach is wholly in contradiction with that being adopted by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, in Amendment No. 178A. That amendment seeks to impose from outside the requirement on faith schools to observe certain procedures so far as concerns admissions. We should be very clear about this. It is an insidious attack on the independence and integrity of Church schools, whose governing bodies at present determine these matters for themselves in accordance with the ethos of their schools and in accordance with the policies of their diocese and the authorities that administer those schools.

I believe that this is part of a drip, drip, drip approach. It is an approach which has been brought forward instead of that originally adopted—I shall return to this point in a moment—which tried to impose rigid quotas, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned. Although I am grateful that the noble Baroness has moved back to my original proposition, I believe that this comes from the same philosophical approach and should therefore be opposed. When one is run over by a tank, it is fairly self-evident that sometimes the devil arrives in carpet slippers. Therefore, one should be very much more suspicious of him on those occasions.

The first part of Amendment No. 178A seems to be fairly benign. It proposes that a voluntary-aided school may propose to the admission forum that a certain proportion of places within the school should be offered, as a priority, to members of the faith promoted by the school. If admission forums are to be established, as the Government have proposed in Clause 44, this part of the amendment can help to ensure that they respect the religious character of voluntary-aided schools within their area. I do not believe that any of us has any great problem with that.

However, any potential benefit of such faith-based input to the admission forum is fatally compromised by the second part of the amendment. When the admission forum, after receiving a proposal from a voluntary-aided school, offers its advice to the local education authority on admission arrangements, it must consider the need for places in the area and the demand for places in faith-based schools. In effect,

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therefore, it can completely disregard the proposal from the faith-based school and offer advice that could seriously dilute the ethos and character of the school.

The amendment fails to recognise that the admission authorities of voluntary-aided schools already take into account factors such as the need for places in their area and the demand for places in faith-based schools. The Catholic Church, in particular, which was referred to in our earlier debate, has demonstrated its willingness to relinquish schools where demographic trends and the needs of the local community indicate that alternative provision is needed. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, when she said that the Government are already in discussion with the diocesan authorities and that a constructive and positive approach is being taken to deal with the tiny number of cases where such a situation arises.

In many areas where it has been the wish of the school trustees, the governing bodies and the local community, and where space has been available, Catholic schools have welcomed pupils from beyond the Catholic community. In our earlier debate I cited the figures. Nationally the figure is approximately 20 per cent, and in some diocese more than one in three pupils are not Catholic but are in Catholic schools. I believe that that mirrors the situation in Church of England and other schools, too. It shows that the populations in those schools are diverse and that they represent the communities that they serve.

During our Second Reading debate, I believe that an erroneous impression was given of some of those schools when it was suggested that only children from very privileged backgrounds would be admitted to them. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that children from rough backgrounds or, indeed, those of a particular colour would be refused admission. I have spoken to teachers who work in those schools and who have read those remarks. I know that they found them very offensive and considered them to be a considerable attack on their morale and on what goes on in those schools. I believe that anyone who looks at such schools will realise that it is a very unfair picture.

Therefore, schools should remain free to decide these questions for themselves. The amendment before the Committee tonight seeks to achieve the exact opposite by vesting authority in the proposed new admission forums. Too often in the debate thus far subterfuge has characterised the tactics of those who are fundamentally opposed to faith-based schools. There is an echo here of what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said to the Committee earlier on the issue of grammar schools. I believe that it is more straightforward if we say exactly where we stand in relation to these matters.

In the other place the idea of quotas was put forward and that faith-based schools should be obliged to admit a minimum of 25 per cent of their pupils from other faiths, notwithstanding that the vast majority of schools already do that. In the Second Reading debate

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in your Lordships' House the idea of catchment areas was put forward. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, warned that,

    "The Liberal Democrats will propose an amendment to the Bill that makes it unlawful for any school in receipt of state funding to deny access to a child from its local community on the grounds of faith or lack of faith".—[Official Report, 11/3/02; col. 631.]

As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has said, that idea appears to have been quietly shelved, perhaps out of recognition that it would encourage the creation of religious ghettos around certain faith-based schools, the very thing that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, warned about in his remarks earlier. That would be the effect of the proposal mooted at Second Reading and it would achieve quite the opposite of what the proposer seeks to achieve.

Notwithstanding those points, Amendment No. 178A has now been laid before the Committee. We can see from where the idea of admission forums has come and the effect of those forums if they have the power to advise local education authorities on the admission arrangements of faith-based schools. Much would depend on who are the members of the forums, what particular ideologies and issues they pursue and what axes they want to grind, which sadly often is the case. One cannot help but wonder why, instead of the subtle variations on a theme, we do not simply hear a straightforward declaration of fundamental opposition to the existence of faith-based schools.

Of course, clarity is not at all popular with the electorate, many of whom send their children to faith schools. Not surprisingly they are aghast when they discover that some politicians would like to shut down their children's schools. That is an issue in areas such as Richmond upon Thames and in my own city of Liverpool. Accusations that such schools encourage divisiveness and social fragmentation causes widespread dismay within the teaching profession in those schools and it damages morale.

This amendment has been justified by the argument that Church schools are non-integrated. That simply is not true. Many faith-based schools are already beacons of social integration. It is a misconception that faith-based schools are like little educational islands that do not mix with others in the educational or wider community. Many of our teachers and pupils play a full and active role within their local education authorities. Catholic schools in particular have been enthusiastic participants in initiatives such as the setting up of specialist schools and sharing expertise under the beacon school arrangement.

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