Orders of the Day — School Standards and Framework Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:07 pm on 22nd December 1997.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 9:07 pm, 22nd December 1997

I am sure that, given her personal experience, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) will agree that, while resources are vital, ethos is perhaps even more important. That is why I want to direct my few remarks to one type of school: Church schools. I do so not because I am an education specialist, but because I have personal experience.

Two of my children attend a grant-maintained, state, Church primary school. Since they have been attending the school—which is housed in one of those grim, five or six-storey Victorian buildings which one sees in inner cities—I have been enormously impressed by the education that they are receiving in a grant-maintained Church school. I only wish to plead with both sides of the House in a non-party-political way to try to further the cause of those excellent schools, many of which are in inner-city areas.

The school which my children attend has the most extraordinary social mix of pupils, all of whom, whatever their background, receive a first-rate education.

Why is that? Sometimes, education spokesmen—not only Government spokesmen, but others as well— seem to be obsessed with academic standards. The philosophy contained in the White Paper and in others I have read over the years is one of "I learn, therefore I am," or even, "I perform, therefore I am," rather than one of trying to educate the whole person. We all have our personal pet theories about what is the real crisis in the classroom, or even whether there is such a crisis, but I believe that real the crisis in the classroom is a spiritual one—a crisis of meaning.

Research in Greenwich shows that the under-performance of white working-class boys is due in part to a lack of a sense of identity—they do not know who they are. We are selling our children short by failing to pass on to them any significant spiritual and cultural identity. Asian youngsters fare far better, thanks to their stronger sense of family and culture.

The first key stage 2 results showed that Church schools did significantly better than other schools—indeed, the top 64 schools in the league table were Church schools. Could that be, not because they are better resourced, or placed in middle-class areas, or have smaller classes than other schools—none of which is true—but because Church schools teach within a framework defined by a specific vision of the world and what it means to be human, and because they value people for what they are as well as for what they do?

In the midst of our information society, we need to educate our children to know which information is relevant and which is irrelevant. It is not enough to know about the war between Bosnians and Serbs, starvation in Ethiopia, or mental breakdown; we need to discover, rediscover and pass on to our children the importance of theology, philosophy and the arts, so that they can learn why there are wars, hunger, homelessness and anger, and seek to change human behaviour accordingly. It is vital to pupils' development that spiritual, moral, social and cultural development form a central part of the curriculum. In the process of doing that, we will answer the wider questions that are so important.

In that context, I welcome the fact that the Bill makes no changes to the provision for religious education and school worship in county schools. There are some who call for the requirement for daily Christian worship to be changed, but from my experience of seeing the assembly that my children attend, I think that such gatherings are inspiring and moving and do no harm at all. That is not only my view, but the view of 69 per cent. of the British public, as expressed in the British social attitudes surveys; only 10 per cent. of the public objected to daily school prayers.

Why should I be worried, when 90 per cent. of primary schools keep to the law on daily Christian assembly? That figure comes from the chief inspector of schools. However, although keeping to the law on assemblies is the norm in the nation's 20,000 primary schools, it is a different picture in the nation's 5,000 secondary schools. According to the chief inspector, instead of 90 per cent. compliance, 75 per cent. of secondary schools do not comply with the law as laid out in statute. Those schools may hold assemblies on some days of the week, but they are still in breach of the law.

I hope that the Minister will encourage those schools to do better and to conform to what the British public want. The Education Act 1944 introduced county schools, which three quarters of children now attend. Any reading of the parliamentary debates as that Bill was going through its stages will confirm the view that county schools were non-denominational, but were intended to be Christian schools, with Christian assemblies. We have to bear that always in mind.

Earlier this year, the Government got into a great deal of trouble when they attempted to cut the number of Church school governors, so that their majority was reduced to one on governing bodies. I am glad that the Government have relented and decided that in those schools the present majority of two or three foundation governors over all other governors should continue. That is fine, but there is a problem: the Bill ends grant-maintained status.

Under the Bill, every GM school must decide to become a community school, a foundation school or a voluntary school. The governing bodies of the Church grant-maintained schools of the type that I send my children to and that the Prime Minister sends his children to—I make no complaint about that: he is entitled to do so and I congratulate him on doing so—must decide which type of school they wish theirs to become.

Obviously, it would be impossible for such a school, with a clear denominational ethos, to become a community school, so the choice will be between a foundation school and a voluntary school. If a school becomes a foundation school, it need not raise the 15 per cent. for its capital spending—which is fine—but the five foundation governors are outnumbered by the 15 other governors, so there is no guarantee that the religious ethos of the school can be maintained. I do not believe, therefore, that those schools will take that route. If, however, the school becomes a voluntary aided school, the foundation governors will be in the majority but the school must raise 15 per cent. of any capital spending.

Dick Turpin would accost his victims with the phrase,"Your money or your life." Grant-maintained schools are in a similar dilemma. They must choose between money or their ethos—their religious life. Why cannot they have, as they have in recent years, both enhanced flexibility on finance and control of their religious ethos?