Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:35 pm on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 1:35 pm, 8th December 2017

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, as a fellow Welsh Peer, and to have heard her very good story. It is always a pleasure, of course, to speak in a debate initiated by the most reverend Primate, whose speech was very fine. The debate that has followed has been excellent in every respect.

I looked up in the Library briefing the definition of character. I thought initially that the definition related to the headmaster of the school of the Minister many years ago, Dr Arnold of Rugby—the sort of muscular Christianity that he propounded—but when I heard my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port explain in much more detail what character meant, I entirely agreed with him about what has, in fact, underpinned this excellent debate. It is about education for the fullness of life. It is, of course, about educating for civic responsibilities, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh referred to—teaching about democracy. I spent 17 years teaching politics and government and issues such as those. However, it is also about educating for happiness. It seems to me that that is done most particularly well by church schools in this country. I refer to the sorts of schools that my noble friend Lord Touhig and I went to—Catholic primary schools in small Welsh mining villages in south Wales—and also to Anglican schools, both in Wales and here in England too.

The figures show that one-third of all pupils in our country go to church schools to be educated, and that 98% of those schools are either Church of England, Church in Wales or Catholic schools. I think there are 7,000 Church of England schools and 2,000 Catholic schools in England. The Churches, I am glad to say, work extremely well together in putting their case to the Government and particularly, of course, to the Minister, who is the faith schools Minister as part of the education team. Catholic schools and Anglican schools provide education for very deprived areas. If noble Lords catch the number 185 bus from Victoria to Camberwell Green, as I occasionally do, they will pass through very deprived areas of south London. As that bus makes its journey there are three schools serving those communities: two Church of England schools and a Catholic school. It proves the point that the Churches place huge importance on the need to ensure that they reach out into our inner cities and our deprived areas. For example, 18% of pupils in Catholic schools come from the poorest backgrounds, which is 6% more than the national average, and 35% come from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The other issue which the most reverend Primate and other speakers have emphasised is the importance of church schools having people who do not necessarily believe in that particular denomination attend them. Very many people want their children to go to Anglican or Catholic schools because of the ethos of those schools. One in three pupils in Catholic schools, for example, are not Catholics, and I think that is a good thing. I referred earlier to my school in Abersychan. My grandparents on both my mother’s Protestant side and my father’s Catholic side went to that same Catholic school because it was the only school giving education in that village at the time. So this is not new.

The issue that I want to finish on is more complicated and slightly controversial. It concerns the fact that the previous coalition Government imposed a cap of 50% admissions on church schools which are free schools or academies. The Catholic Church has declined to build any new free or academy schools so long as the cap is there, partly because in areas with large Catholic populations, it means that Catholics could well be denied entry to the school because the 50% cap had been reached. Back in September 2016, the Minister’s boss, the Prime Minister, said that,

“the rule is failing in its objective to promote integration … we will remove this 50% rule”.

The Conservative manifesto at the last general election called the rule “unfair and ineffective”, and said that it should be removed. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that there is some movement on this and that, after months of consultation, Churches can decide for themselves what to do—bearing in mind that they are very much open to having people come into the schools from other faiths, or indeed from none. But that is a matter for the Churches rather than for imposition, so I would be pleased to hear the reason for the delay. Our society is enriched and our people are well educated because of the existence of our church schools, and long may they flourish.