Schools: Faith Schools and Free Schools — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 28th January 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 3:06 pm, 28th January 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the conditions which must be met before a new state-funded faith school or free school is allowed to be established; who sets and agrees the conditions; and how the conditions must guarantee a broad and balanced curriculum for pupils.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, the department sets out clear conditions in guidance and application guides for the establishment of all schools. All state-funded schools, whether faith-designated or not, must deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. This is a requirement of education legislation or of their academy funding agreement. Ofsted inspections place a clear emphasis on assessing whether schools are providing a broad and balanced education.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

I thank the Minister for that response, but is he aware that a recent Ofsted report described a free school as follows:

“any teaching or learning going on at the school is purely incidental … Student achievement is weak … Standards are low …one of the worst schools”, that they have inspected, and criticised bullying and discrimination? It seems evident that there must have been some lack of organisation in setting up that school. Is it worth risking children’s achievement and well-being for an educational whim?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, we have a rigorous approach to setting up new schools. They will not all work. We have closed a couple of free schools, with a total number of 200 pupils. Although that is very serious for those pupils and their parents, that compares with getting on for a quarter of a million new free school places that we will introduce under the free school UTC and studio school programme. Of the 87 pre-warning notices that this Government have issued to academies, more than 60% have been to sponsors approved by the previous Government, so it is clear that setting up new schools is not entirely straightforward.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my noble friend has been a great proponent of British values. Does he agree that respecting and understanding other religions might find a route in ensuring that faith schools had a percentage of pupils from other faiths?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

All free schools have oversubscription criteria of 50%. All schools must be inclusive and respect the rights and needs of other faiths or people with no faith.

Photo of Lord Singh of Wimbledon Lord Singh of Wimbledon Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest as the director of the network of Sikh organisations responsible for the inspection of Sikh faith schools. The teaching of gender equality and respect for other faiths is obligatory in Sikh faith schools. Does the Minister agree that any school that fails to do that should be treated as a failing school?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I agree entirely with the noble Lord. I have visited a number of Sikh schools and have been extremely impressed with the education that they provide, which is not surprising given the ethics and ethos of community and service in Sikhism.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, spoke of the dangers of reacting to an educational whim. Will my noble friend assure me that he will not react to the educational whims of that extraordinary group of people who my right honourable friend Michael Gove rightly described as “the Blob”? They are an obstruction to education.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I entirely agree that in our approach to the education of our children we should not act on whims from any source.

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Chair, EU Sub Committee A - Economic and Financial Affairs

Is the Minister aware that much of the recurring criticism of these schools is about the failure to deliver education on religion which encompasses all religions and those people who have none at all?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I entirely agree that all schools should prepare their pupils for modern life by teaching them about the basics of all the main religions practised in this country.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

My Lords, given the concerns recently raised by some free faith schools which have cropped up in recent years, is it not time to have a bit of an evaluation of faith schools and their place in our society rather than rolling out even more?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Faith schools and church schools are an essential part of our school landscape. Church schools represent 34% of all schools and 25% of all pupils are educated in them. Church schools consistently outperform other schools and have a superb record of community cohesion. We want to provide parents with diversity and choice.

Photo of The Bishop of Leicester The Bishop of Leicester Convenor of the Lords Spiritual

My Lords, does the Minister agree that “faith school” covers a variety of different kinds of institution? Church of England schools are not faith schools in the narrow sense of providing an education for people of just one faith. In places such as Leicester they provide a rounded education for the whole community, including many of other faiths who value highly what they have to offer.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I agree entirely with the right reverend Prelate. Many church schools are highly inclusive. A study by the University of York undertaken in 2009 praised the record of church schools on community cohesion.

Photo of Baroness King of Bow Baroness King of Bow Labour

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the only way to establish a faith school—like any new school—is via the free schools programme? Some of the problems that we have seen with faith schools are therefore evident more widely—namely, lack of oversight and lack of qualified teachers. As with the Al-Madinah free school and others, that lack of oversight and the presence of unqualified teachers have damaged the education of children in communities in Derby, Durham and Crawley, where free schools have had to close. I know that the Minister will say that many free schools are excellent, and he is right: free schools, like state schools, can be outstanding or inadequate. However, I hope he will agree that that is not the point. The point is that, unlike state schools, free schools can employ unqualified teachers and avoid robust scrutiny. When will the Government better protect and scrutinise the education of children in free schools?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I point out to the noble Baroness that a faith school can be set up through the VA route, although very few are established in this way. I think I have already pointed out that our record of failure in establishing new schools is rather better than that of the previous Government. I am delighted that we are back on unqualified teachers because, if that is all we have to argue about, it clearly shows cross-party support for our education reforms. In fact, there are fewer unqualified teachers under this Government—only around 3% are unqualified. I am surprised that the Labour Party wants to restrict people from RADA or the Royal College of Music who may be able to teach for only a few hours a week in a primary school. I find it particularly surprising that the shadow Secretary of State for Education—it should be borne in mind that he is himself an unqualified teacher, went to a school which has many unqualified teachers, and failed to answer Jeremy’s Paxman’s question nine times—is quite prepared to send his own children to a school with unqualified teachers.