Academies Bill [HL] — Second Reading
Baroness Murphy (Crossbench)
My Lords, I support the Bill. First, however, I declare an interest as chair of St George's Hospital Medical School, University of London, which has been an enthusiastic advocate and implementer of the widening participation agenda. We started early, long before Alan Milburn advocated that the profession should take it more seriously. We have used what I know some have described as social manipulation to ensure that we recruit, from the widest possible number of state schools, the very best medical students and health scientists. The policy has been enormously successful, and the recruits that we have had as a result of this "social manipulation" have been extraordinarily successful in becoming excellent doctors and health scientists. However, I do not really like the social manipulation that we have to go through to do it, because of the extraordinary variability of the quality of the schools from which our applicants come. We need a step change to ensure that there is not this variability of quality; everybody needs to ratchet up.
What I like about the Bill is that it is intended to move us from a system of direct performance management by local authorities to an autonomous, regulated system. This is what we have been trying to do in health policy, and I entirely support it. I particularly like the proposals to allow these schools to set their own pay and conditions for staff and to change the length of the school day and the terms, as well as a wide range of other provisions which the noble Lord, Lord Baker, so eloquently described. I know that we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, about what has happened in the schools that he has sponsored. These are freedoms that we should now give to so many other schools.
I also like the potential for creating a broader range of 14 to 19 year-old technical schools, an area which we have neglected so much in recent years. The idea of free schools is encouraging, although I hope very much that they will in due course be able to make a profit, because we see from evidence from the United States and Sweden that that degree of competition, and the ability to have profits to reinvest, really gets schools to make their mark.
Conferring academy status on a school will, of course, not automatically improve it. Turning a poor school round will take even a good head teacher far longer than one year. All schools in tough areas need support, but the Bill provides the structural context in which teachers can get on with teaching. There is ample evidence from abroad that competition for pupils and the market agenda is to the good, as long as we have key regulatory systems in place to monitor quality. Is the Minister confident that the regulatory system currently available will be adequate to monitor the performance of these schools?
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, in an article in the Guardian last week, made the observation:
"This choice agenda is in some ways little more than a shift in power, from local authorities and schools, to parents".
That is exactly the point, I should have thought, and all to the good. But it also brings me to the dangers, and I echo some of the concerns that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, repeated.
Around one-third of all state-funded schools are schools with a religious character or faith schools, and this number is growing, with some minority religions and Christian denominations running new schools or taking control of the increasing numbers of schools in the state sector or of academies. Many faith schools are exclusive, most are divisive, and all are counterintuitive to social cohesion. Despite claims of inclusiveness, many have control of their own admissions, creating school populations that are far from representative of their own populations in religious or socio-economic terms. Many also discriminate in their recruitment and employment on religious grounds; applicants can be rejected and teachers barred from promotion because they are not of the right religion or of no religion or because of their sexual orientation. Teachers can also have their contracts terminated while in post, if their conduct is deemed incompatible with the tenets of the school's religion. In addition, many faith schools teach-instead of the religious education taught in community schools, which I believe is a crucial part of the curriculum; we need to know about each other's beliefs-their own syllabus, which the law permits to be confessional and which does not have to include learning about other religions or non-religious philosophies.
I draw attention to Professor Ted Cantle's interim report last year on community cohesion in Blackburn and Darwen following the 2001 Oldham riots. He pointed out that the level of segregation in schools is high, growing and more extensive than the level of residential segregation would suggest, with the number of faith schools a particular issue. Although the report calls on faith schools to reconsider their admission policies in the light of the impact on cohesion, some schools in the towns have already made it clear that they do not intend to change their policies. At the launch of the report, Professor Cantle stated that faith schools with religious admission requirements were,
"automatically a source of division".
Freedom for parents to educate according to their principles is one thing. Freedom for a faith group to exert an influence on the very structure of the community is another. At the medical school, we do have difficulties when people come from segregated schools of faith; some things have to be changed and restructured, and they have to be re-educated in another way of thinking. This is profoundly concerning.
I support this Bill very strongly because of the general policy direction, but the Government must think very carefully about what may be created in the name of parent power. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that my fears will be guarded against.