‘(1)If a community or foundation school wishes to change its status to a voluntary aided school, the governors need to seek the approval of—
(a)a simple majority of the registered parents of registered pupils at the school; and
(b)the appropriate diocesan authority.
(2)Where the conditions under subsection (1) have been met, no notices for consultation need to be published and the proposal does not need to be referred to the school organisation committee.’. —[Angela Watkinson.]
The Government greatly value the historic and ongoing contribution that faith organisations make to the provision of publicly funded education in England and Wales. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches already provide thousands of state schools, but Jewish schools have existed in England on that basis for many years. Since 1997, other faith groups have taken the opportunity to set up schools in the state sector, including Muslims, Sikhs, the Greek Orthodox Church and Seventh Day Adventists.
The new clause seeks to make it easier for community and foundation schools to become VA schools. Although not all VA schools have a religious character—that is, they are not all faith schools—the majority do, and of course not all schools with a religious character are VA schools. Foundation schools and voluntary controlled schools may also have a religious character.
Under section 35 of the School Standards and Framework Act and schedule 8 to that Act, statutory proposals are required in order to change the character of a school from community or foundation to voluntary aided. Taken together with the Bill, it is not possible for a school that does not have a religious character to acquire a religious character in the course of changing category. To do so, proposals must be published to discontinue the school and to establish a new school with a religious character.
I take this opportunity to explain why we believe the acquisition of a religious character is so fundamental a change that statutory procedures should apply. That belief is consistent with existing legislation. First, the acquisition of a religious character will have an impact on the management and conduct of the school itself. A voluntary aided school with a religious character provides religious education in accordance with the tenets of the faith rather than following the locally agreed syllabus. All schools with a religious character may appoint staff on the basis of faith, and they may give preference in their admission arrangements to members of a particular faith or denomination.
Secondly, the acquisition of a religious character will have implications for the overall pattern of school provision in an area. If schools adopt admission arrangements that give preference to members of a particular faith, it will obviously have an impact on the exercise of parental choice throughout the area. We believe that all local people, and not only the parents of children who attend the school at a particular time, have a right to be consulted on such a significant change and for their voice to be heard. The statutory proposals process required under the 1998 Act guarantees that.
I am not aware of any evidence suggesting that the existing procedures have prevented schools from acquiring a religious character.
In my constituency, the process is actually taking place. Looking at the new clause, can the Minister anticipate difficulties if, for example, the majority of the pupils were Muslim and the proposal had the approval of the local mosque? Because it was Islam rather than Catholic or Church of England, it would not be possible to accomplish the change under the new clause. That could raise questions of equity.
The hon. Gentleman is right. That demonstrates the importance of significant changes in the pattern of local provision being properly considered locally. In a sense, it connects well with what I was about to say in closing.
In recent years, a significant number of proposals have come forward. Since 1999, 14 proposals have been approved in England to establish schools with a religious character in place of existing community schools, as distinct from completely new schools, or existing independent faith-based schools coming into the state sector in place of existing community schools. Two similar schools were established in Wales during the same period. We are committed to reducing unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on schools. However, the arrangements ensure that all the relevant local parties have sufficient opportunity to make known their views about changes that will affect not only a particular school—I take the hon. Gentleman’s point on that—but others in the area. The new clause would deny many local people and parents a say, so I encourage the hon. Lady to withdraw the motion.