Faith Schools

– in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 8th February 2006.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 7:25 pm, 8th February 2006

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for the extension of faith schools.

My Lords, one aspect of the education White Paper that has not had the attention it deserves is the projected increase in the number of faith schools. I believe this would be a mistaken and deeply retrograde step. I will not argue that we should abolish existing faith schools. I recognise that many of them have high standards, although this is mainly because they are selective. To abolish them would be a negative approach, but I believe that faith schools are undesirable both in principle and in practice.

Let me start with the principle. The American constitution got it right: religion should not be taught in schools. That is an important part of the separation of Church and state, which itself has been a crucial element in the progress of liberal democracy. Although the Church of England is the established Church in this country, for all practical purposes this is a secular country. When I say that we should not teach religion in schools, I do not mean that children should not be taught about the Bible, as that is part of our culture. I personally support teaching children about other religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. I think it is important that they should realise, for example, the important part that Islam has played in the history of civilisation, and that at one time it was the centre of learning and much more tolerant of other faiths than contemporary Christianity.

Teaching about religion is, however, different from teaching religion. One of the most important tasks of education is to teach us to think. To think means to question, and to question means to be taught not to accept blindly what one is told and what one should believe. Teaching people to think is the opposite of indoctrination. Isaiah Berlin rightly called the Enlightenment one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the history of mankind. It was a time when the Church lost its authority to tell us what to think and when reason replaced superstition. Reason means replacing certainty with doubt. A willingness to question authority and to ask for evidence is one of the most important legacies of the Enlightenment.

Faith schools exist to promote particular faiths, not Enlightenment values. Church of England schools exist, as the Archbishops Council said in 2001, to promote the mission of the Church of England to children. Catholic schools exist to reinforce Catholicism and Muslim schools to promote Islam. That is essentially their raison d'être which distinguishes them from other schools. They do not teach children to question these faiths or to make up their own minds whether or not to accept these religious beliefs. Do the new evangelical schools in the north-east teach children to question the truth of the Bible? Are they to be taught creationism? Do Muslim schools teach any of their pupils ever to question the Koran? To teach a faith is to teach children to believe and not to question, let alone to allow room for doubt.

The existence of faith schools assumes that children are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, not the children of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim parents. I believe that this is no more justified than treating children as Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat children. In the end, religion, like politics, should be a matter of individual choice, not imposed by indoctrination at a tender age. Of course most children are influenced by their parents, but schools should encourage them to open their minds, and that should be the goal of a liberal education—to prepare children for life in a liberal democracy.

I turn next to the practical objections. Surely there can be little doubt that faith schools are divisive. Many of them teach tolerance of other religions, but I put the question: have separate faith schools in Northern Ireland brought the communities closer together or have they had a divisive effect? Have they led to a greater understanding of the respective Catholic and Protestant viewpoints? Who can doubt that segregation in schools has not helped to reduce hostility between the two communities and a lack of understanding of the other's attitude? Indeed, one of the more encouraging signs of the past few years, which has been widely welcomed by the less partisan, is the increase in the number of integrated schools.

Faith schools over-emphasise religious identity. They encourage children to see themselves in terms of their religion. Faith schools mean that children are less likely to meet young people from different religions and ethnic backgrounds, to play with them and make friends. Yet ignorance about different communities can only aggravate racism since one of its root causes is fear of the unknown.

I am worried about the gradual intrusion into this country of the American religious right, with its profound intolerance of the values of the Enlightenment. It is lush with funds and keen to proselytise. Can the Government guarantee that it will not, by one means or another, gain a foothold in our education system through this projected expansion of faith schools? The new academy schools in Newcastle and Gateshead are not a good augury.

Above all, I am worried about the large projected increase in Muslim schools. If there are to be more Catholic schools and Church of England schools, of course we cannot refuse new Muslim schools. But these schools will increase the isolation of a community that is already the least integrated into our society. Religion already divides Muslims from the rest of society by dress, the intensity of their religious observance, and some social attitudes, especially their attitudes towards women. As the Ouseley report on Bradford found in 2001, monocultural schools add to social exclusion and racism.

What effect will more Muslim schools have on girls? This is surely one of the most important issues. Women of Asian heritage have been some of the strongest opponents of religious schools. As the London South Asia Solidarity Group said in 2002:

"We believe that single faith schools will mean more discrimination and a greater stranglehold of the most conservative, anti-women and communal individuals over our children's education and our communities as a whole".

Is that what the Government are prepared to accept?

Let me return to the Enlightenment. At present we are seeing a reaction against Enlightenment values, a march of unreason, a rejection of the evidence-based approach to a number of current social issues. We see a proliferation of quack remedies and of sellers of snake oil. These trends are dangerous because if we reject evidence and reason and go back to the superstitions that reigned before the Enlightenment, how, for example, can we deal with the chauvinist and the racist? It is vital that our schools teach pupils to think critically and give children at least some immunity against fundamentalism and other forms of credulity.

I am all for cultural diversity. But schools should be a place for integration, not segregation—for the liberation of the spirit, not indoctrination of any kind. I wish we had no faith schools at all. It is too late for that. But at least we should say: no more.

Photo of Baroness Corston Baroness Corston Labour 7:35 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on securing this debate. If I was starting from scratch, I would not set up faith schools either. This view was reinforced when as a member of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body I took part in an inquiry into non-denominational education. In two particular parts of the United Kingdom—to a lesser extent the west of Scotland, but to a very great extent, Northern Ireland—the segregation of children has actually exacerbated sectarianism. Yesterday I visited the City Academy in Bristol, in my former constituency. Children from all communities, large numbers of them Muslim, are benefiting from a fabulous education based on the human rights principles of tolerance and respect. But my children went to a Church of England primary school and I cannot say in all conscience that, "Well, it was OK for them to attend a Church of England primary school but it is not OK for other people to go to similar schools".

Towards the end of the 1990s in Bristol there was a growing clamour within the Muslim community for a Muslim school. As a local Member of Parliament and particularly since I represented an area containing the largest population of Muslims, I was naturally lobbied to support the proposal. Two things struck me. The first was that the people calling for the school were always men; that has to be acknowledged. The second rang grave alarm bells for me during the 2002 general election when, while visiting the biggest mosque in Bristol, I was specifically asked whether I would support Muslim schools. Before I could open my mouth, one of the chief proponents said: "We don't mind what happens to our boys, but we do want this for girls". I then visited some Muslim girls attending secondary schools in Bristol and asked them whether they would like to go to the Muslim girls' school in Gloucester. They all said no, they wanted to remain in their schools where they had a choice over what kind of dress to wear and what kind of education to pursue. They also wanted to learn not only about Islam, but about Guru Nanak's birthday, Easter and other religious festivals.

All this led me to think about the profile of immigrant communities. My maternal grandparents came from Ireland and expected my mother and her sisters, growing up in this country, to be imbued with the values of rural Ireland. That led to a considerable clash within the family, which is very common among immigrant groups. Films like "East is East" and "Bend It Like Beckham" have famously and hilariously explored these issues. But there does seem to be a strong gender element to the calls for Muslim schools. While I do not know what is happening everywhere else, I do know that within Bristol the people who want them are male, while many of those who do not are the girls themselves. So I say to the Government, to my noble friend on the Front Bench and his colleagues: be very careful that this is not just about the social control of women.

Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative 7:38 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, one of the gravest mistakes made by the Government in 1997 was to let it be known that they would consider sympathetically state funding for more religious schools. When I was Secretary of State for Education, I had no requests from either the Anglican Church or the Catholic Church for new schools. In fact, several were being closed at the time. I did receive requests from evangelical Christians, from Muslims and from Jews. I turned those requests down. I did not do that because I am a humanist. Indeed, I am an Anglican. I went to a Church of England primary school, Holy Trinity up in Southport. We went to church twice a year and were taught some Bible stories. I was certainly told that I was not one of the elect, but my experience framed the sort of Anglicanism with which I am comfortable. There was no passionate intensity or proselytising zeal; rather there was devotion, kindness and forgiveness.

I, too, believe that there should be a spiritual aspect in children's education. Indeed, in the preamble to the Education Reform Act, which I put on the statute book, there is a recognition of the word "spiritual"—it is in the very title of the legislation. I ensured that that was implemented in the Bill by providing for local community SACRE committees to come together to agree the terms of religious observance recognising all religions.

I regret that the Government have adopted their policy because I think that the new faith schools—rather unlike the one that I went to—have become very exclusive. That is what they wanted to do and that is what their proponents wanted from them, which is regrettable. So what can the Government do? First, they should not give approval to any more faith schools. Secondly, I hope that they will say to those schools that have been approved that they expect a quota of at least a third of students admitted to be drawn from other religions. I would give the schools two years to comply. The Government are quite versed in quotas—they are rather keen on them—in other aspects of the education system, so this will not be an unfamiliar process for them. If the schools do not reach that target within, say, two years, the funding should be withdrawn. Thirdly, these are the most selective schools in the country. The Government have recognised that. In one of the concessions that Mr Blair made this week he said that faith schools would no longer interview parents. However, that is a meaningless concession. The communities know where the faith schools are; the teachers know where their pupils are going to come from; and many can be selected by surname rather than by interview.

I do not speak in any way from an anti-religious point of view, as I have made clear. However, particularly in a week when our society in Britain has been under considerable pressure in one way or another, those communities and religions that have come to our country, which we welcome, should accept that they should live within the broad British tradition—and that broad British tradition is one not of exclusion but one of inclusion, of tolerance, of forbearance, of hearing the other person's point of view, of give and take. Those are the qualities that we should be promoting today in our society; we should not be dividing children at an early age on account of their religion.

Photo of The Bishop of Liverpool The Bishop of Liverpool Bishop 7:42 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for introducing the debate. I begin by declaring an interest—more than one—in that I chair the governing body of a new city academy, which is to open formally this Friday. It is the first academy to be jointly sponsored by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool and it is the first academy to take the environment as its specialism. It serves the local community and arose out of the New Deal for Communities programme. The Churches became natural partners with the local community because the Church in Liverpool—as elsewhere—has a proven and trusted track record in education.

Contrary to what the noble Lord said, faith-based education is not about propaganda or indoctrination. It simply recognises that the exploration of faith throughout the curriculum is integral to the formation of the whole person. As human beings we possess a variety of faculties—mental, emotional, physical, moral, spiritual and social—and an education that engages with all these capacities serves to educate the whole person, critically and spiritually. So I beg to differ with the noble Lord, especially with his view that religion should not be taught in schools. I have just returned from America, where I met many people who deeply regretted that particular stance being taken in that country.

In a multi-faith society, where religion can be all the more important to the marginalised, it is best that such faith schools are invited into and sustained within the state provision so that there can be proper monitoring of the curriculum, proper access for the local neighbourhood, proper accountability to the community and proper integration into our society. Unless you are going to outlaw private faith-based schools, such schools in the minority communities are here to stay and show every sign of growing. Surely it is better to have such schools within the state provision as a means of integration and cohesion than to keep these schools and their communities on the margins of our society.

The Church of England is committed to inclusiveness. This historic position was re-emphasised recently in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, to the Church of England. We see evidence of this all the time, with, for example, members of the Jewish and Muslim communities choosing to send their children to our schools because faith is integral to education and explicitly respected. Again, my own academy has an admissions policy where priority is given to local young people within the New Deal area regardless of their faith affiliation. Residence is the only qualification, apart from special needs. Indeed, two-thirds of all the new Church of England secondary schools serve disadvantaged communities. This is consistent with our historic ideals of being biased to the poor.

The origin of the Church's involvement in education was to serve the children of the local parish, and especially the poor. It is true that, as the state rightly took responsibility for the education of the nation's children, the scope of the Church's involvement consequently narrowed. Now that the Government have opened wider the door to a new partnership with the Church and other faith communities, we are recovering our original mandate to serve the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Parents choose faith schools, especially in those areas of multiple deprivation—and I speak from a diocese of which 45 per cent of the parishes are in urban priority areas. I am delighted that we include the school of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in the diocese of Liverpool at Holy Trinity, Southport. These faith schools are in some of our most deprived areas, and parents from these deprived areas choose these schools because of the standards they achieve, the values they share and the commitment of the staff—which, in many cases, is strengthened by the very faith that is integral to the education of the whole person.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I respectfully remind your Lordships that this is a timed debate and that Back-Benchers have been allocated three minutes. This means that when the clock shows three minutes, speakers are actually into their fourth minute.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Huyton Baroness Morgan of Huyton Labour 7:47 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, this is a valuable, if short, debate. I am particularly pleased to speak after the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, because I am very interested in the new Francis of Assisi school, to which I shall turn in a minute.

I begin by asking what parents seek when they are looking for a school for their children. I think we basically agree that, ideally, we want it to be local, with a great head teacher; with a strong ethos and clear social and behavioural norms; with clear boundaries and disciplinary codes based on punishment and reward which are understood and operated by all the adults; with good relations between the staff and students; with a strong pastoral system; with high and/or improving standards and high aspirations set for all the pupils; with strong expectations of parental input into the school and openness to parents; and with it being a part of the community. If a school has got all of the above, the chances are that it is oversubscribed.

But in which schools are these attributes to be found, especially in inner cities? I think we need to recognise that they are often found in faith schools, particularly in inner cities. That is not, by any means, the case in all faith schools—and absolutely not only in faith schools—but something is going right in many faith schools. Often this is a combination of a strong ethos permeating the whole school. That is not necessarily, or even primarily, a specific faith ethos; it is wider than that. I think the effect of being a voluntary-aided school can help in a couple of ways. There are more freedoms, both real and often just perceived, for the head and the governing body. That tends to attract the best of both.

I have to confess, however—this point has been raised by other noble Lords today—that I feel uneasy about two aspects of some faith schools. First, the selection procedures must be fair and transparent, but we all know that at times that is not the case. I welcome the proposals to end interviews, but I think we need to go further. Secondly, I am nervous of single-faith intakes in a minority of schools. These cannot help to promote tolerance or cohesiveness. That is why the Liverpool academy is so exciting. As someone who went to school in Liverpool, I think it an amazing step forward to have Anglican and Roman Catholic education brought together.

I am also interested in the longer-term prospect that academies and trust schools may allow for multi-faith schools, going even wider than the Liverpool experiment. I talked recently to an MP who was concerned about the number of pupils in his constituency going to independent Islamic schools. He said that the parents largely wanted what they called moral and decent schools—schools with rules, respect and results. They did not, for the most part, necessarily want independent or even mono-faith schools. Therefore, I hope that one outcome of the current discussion of the schools White Paper will be to allow the prospect of new schools in the state sector that can meet this demand and offer high-quality education to more pupils in a multi-faith way.

Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Home Affairs, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland 7:50 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for initiating this debate. I am in agreement with much of what has been said, particularly that non-Christian faith schools are likely to draw their pupils from fairly close-knit communities. There is a danger that such schools can become introspective, ghettoised and a nucleus for the fomenting of violence. However, if largely on this account the expansion of faith schools is seriously curtailed, will we not be in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Such curtailment will affect all the Christian Church schools as well.

This country can indeed be proud of its Church schools. They were enshrined in the Education Act 1944, thanks to the foresight of R A Butler, as he was then, and replicated in the Education Act 1996. The Human Rights Act 1998 says,

"the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions".

I speak as a Roman Catholic in respect of Catholic schools. However, virtually all I have to say will apply similarly to Church of England voluntary-aided schools, as so eloquently enunciated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. Catholic Church schools are truly comprehensive; they have resisted the grammar school routes and they welcome children of every ability, including those with special educational needs, and of every race and mix. The vast majority of Catholic schools which are oversubscribed select only on the basis of religion. Here I take issue with my noble friend Lord Baker and, indeed, with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. All the Christian denominations in the United Kingdom which have Church schools have a tradition of religious tolerance and, certainly with regard to the Catholic ones, pupils are encouraged to understand and respect faiths other than their own. The right reverend Prelate referred to the large number of Muslim parents who send their children to Church schools for these reasons. There is one particular advantage which Church schools represent. They tend to have a catchment area larger than those of community schools, with all the advantages of population mix which that will bring.

I hope that I do not portray the Christian Church schools as morally superior to others where the pupils tend to come from an ethnically homogeneous community, sharing the same social background. It is simply that Church schools, for reasons partly of history and partly through the place of the Christian faith in the community in the 21st century, have an inclusiveness among their pupil mix which, I suggest to the Minister, it would be tragic—dare I say disastrous?—to inhibit.

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden Baroness Turner of Camden Labour 7:53 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. I should perhaps state my interest. I am a secularist and a humanist and I do not support the idea of faith schools; I believe them to be damaging to social cohesion. It is often claimed that they increase parental choice, but the evidence is that parents and the general public just want good, all-round neighbourhood schools. Many think that separating children according to religious belief is wrong, as wrong as separating them according to colour or accent. Others think that the proper place to teach religion is at home or in Sunday school.

It is not surprising that the large number of publicly funded Christian schools has led to members of other faiths demanding public funds for their schools. But the requirements of religious leaders should not override the needs of children for an education that opens windows on a wider world. Culture and beliefs can be transmitted at home. There is often a gulf between the religious segregation wanted by older generations and religious leaders and what young people themselves want. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, found when he reported on the situation in Bradford. He found inspiring the desire among young people for better education and more social and cultural inter-reaction. They realised that being taught in religious ghettos is not a good preparation for life in a multicultural society.

Others in the Muslim community take a similar view. Many Asian women's groups are not in favour of single-faith schools because they think it will mean more discrimination and a greater influence of reactionary clerics over children's education. There is also evidence that many young Muslim women are resentful of the constraints exercised upon them by the clerics in their communities. As one said in a recent TV interview, "I believe in democracy, but for me that must include gender equality". That is not an idea that appeals to many Muslim clerics.

In Northern Ireland it is clear that segregation of children by religion in schools has contributed to segregation in the wider community. There has been an increase in the number of integrated schools there, and this has been welcomed, as indicating a desire for peace and reconciliation.

Our Government, however, seem committed to faith schools. We can at least ask that the schools should be non-selective, making their intakes more truly inclusive. Could we not reduce the desire for separate faith schools by making community schools more inclusive and more accommodating? I do not believe there should be an expansion of faith schools.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 7:56 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I support faith-based schools; I am thoroughly in favour of them. That said, I go along with my noble friend Lord Baker from then on. The current situation is completely unacceptable. Faith-based schools have become agents of social division and social exclusion. I see a great deal of what is going on as editor of the Good Schools Guide, and I am delighted that the schools that the Church of England is opening now are not faith-selective. But some of the ones it operates and has operated for a long time are not only faith-selective but also eye-wateringly selective on a social basis. They admit almost entirely middle-class children by setting complex admissions requirements that it is very unlikely anyone outside the middle class will ever pass. I find this unacceptable. I do not want to see an increase in that kind of division within society. We have to do something serious about the level of division that we have now.

I am very attracted by my noble friend's suggestion that, to qualify for state funding, any school that exercised religious selection in its intake would have to show that a certain percentage—a third, say—of its intake was of some other religion or none. In other words, a third of its intake would not be subject to any form of religious selection. That would be a very good filter on the kind of education in a particular school; the school would have to be run in a way that attracted parents who were not of its religion. That would cause no difficulty to the vast majority of Anglican and Catholic schools. It is no surprise to me that the great Catholic public schools have a very high percentage of children who are not Catholic but whose parents choose that kind of education for them. That applies even more to the great Anglican public schools, which have no difficulty in accommodating other religions extremely well.

It would greatly strengthen the religious tradition in schools to open up what I consider a very high-quality and useful moral education to people whose parents do not happen to have gone every day to Mass for the past five years, which is the common requirement in state Catholic schools in London. We will have a chance to attack this issue in detail in the forthcoming Bill. I look forward to it.

Photo of Lord Jones Lord Jones Labour 7:59 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for initiating this debate and declare my chairmanship of a diocesan education board.

Within the diocese of St Asaph are 54 Church in Wales primary schools. Many are small schools in rural areas; some are in isolated upland communities. About one quarter of them use the medium of Welsh. Some of our heads and staff are Roman Catholics. Wrexham, in north-east Wales, is the site of a positive extension of faith schooling: a shared faith high school, Roman Catholic and Anglican, will be the first in north Wales. The foundation will be the existing, excellent St Joseph's High School. The two bishops, the right reverend Edwin Regan and the Church in Wales's right reverend John Davies are close collaborators. The Welsh Assembly Government have been generous in this £10 million project.

Those schools bring an extra dimension to the education of our children. In many cases, they are in far-flung, hilly areas. They are at the very heart of these small communities. Truly, the Church offers a very special gift there. No conditions for entry are made and most schools have been in place for generations. These schools are places of happiness and security as well as learning. And there is worship. They are in great contrast to the equivalent urban school by way of landscape, culture and society, which is essentially agrarian. But both environments in the diocese promote the welfare of the young; promote the disadvantaged and help the vulnerable. I have seen that with my own visits. These faith schools do much good.

Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Spokesperson in the Lords (Id Cards & Charities Bill), Home Affairs 8:01 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Taverne for instigating this debate. He put his case about as effectively as it could be put and I am not at all deaf to many of the points that he made. However, I must describe myself as a low ecumenical Anglican—Anglican educated. My grandson goes to the same Anglican primary school as I did. The arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, are too theoretical for my liking. We start from where we are and we have 4,500 Anglican primary schools—let alone other faiths—and 200 secondary schools. The Anglican Church committed itself in 2001 in the report referred to by the right reverend Prelate, The Way Ahead, to creating 100 more secondary schools within five years and 120 are already created or en route, so the Church is extremely active.

Then there is the question of pragmatism. Why do so many of our fellow citizens want to send their children to faith schools? It is not because they are doctrinaire or because they teach creationism and it is certainly not because they are divisive as the noble Lord said they were. It is because they are good schools. To adapt Cromwell's ringing phrase, they know why they exist and they love what they know. They are spiritual, have a strong ethos and are caring, gentle and effective educationally. How on earth it would be in the interest of this nation to sweep that aside, as you effectively would if you pursued the suggestion of noble Lord, Lord Taverne, I do not know.

Having said that, I accept many of the points already made by my noble friend and by the noble Lords, Lord Baker and Lord Lucas, and other speakers. I accept that there is a degree of potential divisiveness, particularly in relation to Muslim schools, because of the circumstances in which they exist. In saying that, I do not for a second wish to imply that that is the intent or design of those who set up and run those schools; it is not. But I did rather warm to the notion advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, that we might experiment with some interfaith schools—why not? I had a part in establishing integrated education in Northern Ireland, but those schools were Catholic and Protestant and did not involve other faiths. Wonderfully successful though those schools are—and may there be more of them—why not have some interfaith schools?

I also call upon the Church of England to do much more to ensure that its schools follow the precepts in The Way Ahead by having a higher proportion of non-Christian and non-belief pupils, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, suggested. It should plot the achievements of those schools in terms of their mixed entry. I also urge the Church of England to encourage public and independent schools to practise the second commandment, which is to love their neighbours as themselves. Too few of them engage actively with their neighbouring state schools. That would be of great assistance to us all. With those few remarks, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for this debate.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 8:05 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important matter. Some years ago, I visited a project in Northern Ireland where children of both denominations were sent to the United States for some weeks. They came back and I attended a reunion of the parents and the children who had taken part in the project. As I wandered round this hall in Dungannon, I was dismayed at the number of parents of one faith who had never had a cup of tea with parents of the other faith. What we have in Northern Ireland is a divided society. I am not saying that integrated schools in Northern Ireland would solve all the problems of that society, but, goodness me, they would certainly help.

We know that children who are in a school of one faith are all too prone to demonise children of the other faith. I remember those dreadful incidents in north Belfast, when children were trying to get to Holy Cross School. The television news teams went to Lagan College, which is integrated, and interviewed some of its students, who said, "We can't understand this. We sit together in the same classrooms and we have no problem. How can they have a problem over there?". So it is not surprising that in Northern Ireland, in June 2003, 82 per cent of parents supported integrated education, 81 per cent said that integrated schools were important in building peace and reconciliation and 52 per cent said that the only reason they did not send their children to an integrated school was that there was not one in their locality. They just want a choice and the option of being able to do that.

Although the situation in Britain is very different from that in Northern Ireland, I fear that there are lessons from Northern Ireland that we ought to learn. We have seen some of that where, willy-nilly, the schools in some of our northern towns are segregated. That may be because of housing and the accident of geography, but the fact is that when children are divided and do not sit in the same classrooms as children of another faith, we are beginning to have a divided society. The noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, referred to that very clearly in his report on Bradford, to which reference has already been made.

We cannot turn the clock back. All we can do is go on in this direction. I hope that the Government will put a halt to further faith schools. Let us consider where we are and see if we can move backwards a little. We are a multicultural society; let us treat our children as people who will become responsible members of that society.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills 8:08 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Taverne for initiating this timely and interesting debate, but speaking from the Front Bench, I also need to disassociate myself very firmly from the views that he expressed. Liberal Democrats recognise the popularity and success of many faith schools. They are oversubscribed and achieve on straight points higher than average GCSE and A-level scores. We have argued for changes in admissions procedures similar to those now being advocated in the White Paper debate, but at no time have we argued for or advocated the removal of state funding from these schools.

Historically, our state school system in this country owes much to the early provision of Anglican, Non-Conformist and Roman Catholic schools and the partnership that they formed in the late 19th century with the state sector—a partnership that was renewed in the Butler Education Act 1944, which has generally speaking stood the test of time and proved very successful. We also recognise the logic of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that if we offered partnership to the Anglican and Roman Catholic schools, this country could not reasonably withhold partnership from schools of other faiths. Equally, when the Government passed the 1998 Act, we had not expected that this Government would start promoting a policy which explicitly encouraged the takeover of existing community schools by faith communities and other faith-based sponsors.

We have reservations about this policy, based on issues of social integration. We accept that the social mix of church schools is more diverse than of the foundation schools; the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made the point that of the 200 top-performing schools identified by the Good Schools Guide, 70 per cent are foundation or Church schools—and they are disproportionate in their make-up. Only 5 per cent of their intake have free school meals, as distinct from an average of 15 per cent of the country as a whole. Within the White Paper debate, there has been increasing evidence from research at the University of Bristol, at the LSE and from the Sutton Trust that when schools are their own admissions authority, a far smaller proportion of children come from low-income families than in the general run of schools.

We also have reservations on community integration. That dates back to the Cantle and Ouseley reports mentioned by other noble Lords in this debate, after the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. Those reports noted the important role of schools as integrating institutions in the community and warned against a proliferation of faith-based schools, which could serve to fragment the community on ethnic lines. As the right reverend Prelate mentioned, it is essential that these schools adopt the national curriculum. Those reservations were echoed recently by David Bell in his recent speech to the Hansard Society. He said:

"This growth in faith schools needs to be carefully . . . monitored by government to ensure that pupils at all schools, receive an understanding of not only their own faith but of other faiths and the wider tenets of British society".

We agree with that. It is why there needs to be careful reflection on whether England really needs to establish many more faith schools. But in the multi-racial society in which we now live, we think that there are times when our community schools need perhaps to be more sensitive to their multi-faith responsibilities.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Education, Shadow Minister (Children), Health, Shadow Minister (Women), Trade & Industry 8:12 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for bringing this most important subject before your Lordships' House. I declare at the outset an interest as a former adviser to the Abbot of Ampleforth and that my son and daughter were educated at Ampleforth College, a school of which I am enormously proud.

We have had thought-provoking and lively contributions, which is hardly surprising given that we are discussing a freedom highly prized in a country where education owes much to the historic partnership between Church and state. I speak of the freedom of parents to choose schools where the beliefs and values which they hold dear are well taught and permeate the very ethos of the school. That is one freedom which the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, would seek to restrict—a somewhat illiberal proposal. I look forward to continuing this conversation with my noble friends Lord Baker and Lord Lucas.

Faith schools work, helping to produce higher academic standards. Although they account for only 18 per cent of secondary schools, they represent 42 per cent of the top 200 comprehensives. In social and economic terms, their intake is little different from that of the maintained schools; one sixth of Church of England schools have more than 30 per cent of pupils on free school meals, about the same proportion as local authority schools, and they have a very similar proportion of children from the poorest postcodes.

If you seek the key to the better performance of these schools, you will find it not in wealth or privilege or in academic selection but in the shared values and distinctive ethos which many of these schools have managed to create and which forms the best possible foundation for learning and social development. Some noble Lords have argued that faith-based schools encourage segregation. There are many examples of these schools promoting social inclusion, welcoming other faiths and building active partnerships with a range of community organisations. For example, St Peter's Catholic Primary School in Bradford is working with other schools on the "BD3 for all" programme to combat racism. Pupils from the London Oratory, almost half of whom have English as their second language, go out to schools in the local community, not one of which is a faith school, and including two special schools, to help with reading and music.

It is also encouraging to see religious organisations coming together to create good schools in some of our most deprived areas, such as Kensington—the one in Liverpool, not in west London—where, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool has already mentioned, a new school opened jointly by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church will build cohesion in what was once a divided city.

David Cameron has said that when faith schools come under the umbrella of the national curriculum he is in favour of them, because parents have a right to choose how their children are educated. So we on this side of the House welcome the measures that the Government have already taken and are proposing to make it easier for faith communities to create new schools. We applaud the energy with which religious organisations are embracing the opportunity that this presents and we look forward to their growing contribution to the education, the social and the spiritual development of generations to come.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 8:15 pm, 8th February 2006

My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for enabling us to discuss faith schools this evening. On behalf of the Government, I should like to recognise at the outset the positive contribution made by the Church of England, the Church of Wales, the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations to education in England and Wales since the advent of our state education system, and the contribution of other faith communities in more recent decades.

The Question on the Order Paper is very specific; it asks what plans the Government have for the extension of faith schools. I shall address that Question before commenting on some of the wider issues raised, if I have time. The answer to the noble Lord's Question is that the Government themselves have no plans for new faith schools, since central government in England does not of course establish or run any schools. Rather, the Government conceive their duty as being to sustain and improve local and national decision-making structures, which enable new schools, including new faith schools, to be established when they have bona fide promoters who satisfy the local responsible decision-takers that such schools meet clear parental demands and offer high quality education within national rules governing curriculum, inclusion, inspection, accountability and admissions.

The decision-takers with the greatest role in this process are local authorities, directly through their legal powers in respect of school planning and organisation, indirectly through their resources and their ownership of much of the suitable land for school buildings, and also through their local political leadership. Many local authorities have historically sought a diversity of provision in their area to meet parental demands, including the provision of Church and minority faith schools. Under the terms of the Education Act 2005, there must be open competitions for new and replacement secondary schools. Those competitions are open to faith promoters as to other school promoters and continue to be open to existing private schools, faith or other, to apply to join the state system, as has been the case since the Butler Act.

We proposed in the recent White Paper on schools that these competitions and proposals, currently determined by local school organisation committees, should in future, subject to legislation, be decided by local authorities, or by local adjudicators in certain circumstances. In taking those decisions, local authorities and local adjudicators will be expected to take account of parental representations and the contribution that proposals will make to meeting local parental demands and promoting high standards, diversity and choice.

A concern for some in the faith communities is the capital requirements when transferring existing faith schools into the state system where local decision-makers have agreed in principle to support that. We propose to make it easier for such independent schools to enter the state sector by relaxing the school premises requirements for new state schools so that they can join the state system in their existing premises, which will already have had to meet essential educational and child welfare standards. We know that this is an issue for some independent faith schools that have been unable to secure capital funding to build new premises, and we want such schools to have the option to join the state sector when that is what local decision-makers and parents wish to happen. They would then work with their local authorities to improve the standard of their premises, including with the new "Building Schools for the Future" programme.

In the case of academies, which are directly funded and regulated by the Department for Education and Skills, it is the Secretary of State, not local decision-makers, who decides whether to allow a proposal for a new school to proceed. However, academies are almost always developed in collaboration with local authorities, which generally provide some or all of the land, which includes the eight academies with faith sponsors.

A case in point is the excellent new Liverpool Academy in the deprived Kensington district of the city, which was developed, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool has described so eloquently, as an innovative partnership between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, with the strong support of Liverpool City Council. This is one of a number of new schools in which the Church of England has been involved following the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, and if proposals for a multi-faith school were to be presented we would look at them sympathetically.

Over the years, the number and type of faith schools have changed. Nationwide about 30 per cent of state-funded schools currently have a faith sponsor—that is, 36 per cent of primary schools and 17 per cent of secondary. To set this in a historical context, in 1946, following the passage of Butler's Act and its educational settlement between Church and state, some 40 per cent of England's state-funded schools were church schools. Of today's 7,000 faith schools, almost all are associated with the major Christian denominations, but over recent years we have seen other faiths promoting schools. In the state sector we now have 36 Jewish schools, six Muslim schools, two Sikh schools and one Greek Orthodox school—the last of those agreed before my time, but a cause of great rejoicing within my own immigrant community. I should stress that all these minority faith schools have been approved by local decision-makers and decision-making processes, and operate within the rules on curriculum, admissions, inspection and regulation within the locally maintained system.

The answer to the specific Question posed by the noble Lord is that any expansion in the number of faith schools will not be the result of any government planning, but rather of proposals from bona fide faith promoters that meet clear parental demands and offer high quality education in conformity with appropriate local and national regulations.

This debate raises an important underlying issue, however, which I would like to address in the time remaining: the nature of faith schools themselves. A supposition underpinning much of the debate on this subject is that faith schools are not strongly committed to inclusion. In fact, in respect of admissions, there is wide diversity of practice to meet local circumstances, and we believe faith schools as a whole are as strongly committed to community engagement and inclusion as other schools. Taking up first the issue of admissions, which the noble Lords, Lord Taverne and Lord Baker, raised, some faith schools do give an absolute priority to members of their own faith, although since 2002 it has been illegal for any school in the state system to refuse places to those of other faiths or no faith if they have places vacant. Also, we announced on Monday that it is our intention in the forthcoming Education Bill to end by law the practice of interviews as part of the admission process for faith schools to ascertain faith commitments.

It is not the Government's view that such a policy of giving absolute priority to members of one faith or another is of itself incompatible with a community commitment and cohesion. However, many faith schools do not adopt such a policy of giving absolute priority to members of their own denomination or faith. This appears to be an increasing trend, and we welcome it. The Church of England has a particular tradition of providing schools, not just for Anglicans, but for the local community as a whole. The Archbishop of Canterbury has committed all Church of England schools to seeking to give priority for at least some places to children of other faiths or none. The House of Bishops issued a statement to this effect in 2002. It is repeated in the national guidance from the Church's board of education to all Church of England schools, and it has our support. For example, the Sir John Cass school in Tower Hamlets allocates only 20 per cent of places on the basis of Christian faith, and the majority of pupils at the school belong to the Muslim faith. There are many other schools with similar stories to tell.

Similarly, many non-Catholics attend Catholic schools, particularly in inner-city areas. Around 14 per cent of pupils in Catholic primary schools, and 21 per cent in Catholic secondary schools, are non-Catholic. It is also a fact that, overall, Roman Catholic schools have a higher proportion of minority ethnic pupils than non-faith schools.

With regard to schools with other faith sponsors: in Hayes, the Guru Nanak Sikh primary and secondary schools give some priority to children of any faith. As well as Sikh students, the school community also includes Christian, Hindu and Muslim students. The new city academies also provide examples of faith schools whose admission arrangements are explicitly inclusive of other faiths or none. The Liverpool Kensington Academy has already been mentioned. The United Learning Trust, a Church of England foundation of private and state schools, whose president is the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, is the sponsor of four academies of a non-denominational Christian character. Of these, only one gives a fairly modest priority to members of the Christian faith; the others give no priority on the basis of faith, but have 100 per cent local community admissions.

The Government are strongly supportive of such admissions policies for faith schools that extend places to those of other faiths and no faith. The code of practice on admissions says on this point:

"Faith schools can contribute to community cohesion by having admissions arrangements that are inclusive of other faiths and of all elements of the population in their local area. Some faith schools already achieve inclusiveness by designating a proportion of places for which children of their own faith or denomination will be given priority . . . this is quite different from quotas, which would reserve places solely for particular groups, and would mean leaving places empty if not enough members of those groups apply".

There is much else I could say, but I have run out of time. In conclusion, in preparing for this debate, I read a good deal of what faith leaders themselves have said about the role of faith schools. I was particularly struck by a remark of the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, who, in talking of the distinct ethos of faith schools, dwelt on the Jewish ethos of schools in his community, but added that equally central to the successful faith school was that it should embody:

"the principle that every child counts, that each has unique gifts, that each has a singular contribution to make, without which the world would be a poorer place".

To my mind that sums up the mission of every school, with or without a faith sponsor. The faith communities make a significant and distinct contribution to this mission within our national education system, and, where parents want faith schools with this commitment and this ethos, we believe it right that they should be able to choose them.