Faith Schools

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 1st November 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities 2:30 pm, 1st November 2006

I am pleased to introduce the debate this afternoon, which is nothing if not topical, and I am pleased to see that so many hon. Members have attended.

I want to cover two separate issues. One is the question of admissions policies of faith schools—not the existence of faith schools or whether there should be new faith schools. As there is a lot to cover, I hope that hon. Members will restrict their contributions to the questions that I am raising, which is, of course, up to them and you, Mr. Jones. Those questions are controversial enough without debating whether there should be faith schools or new faith schools. The second issue is the employment practices of such schools, which is again increasingly topical.

I took the opportunity to brief the three Front Benchers on the content of what I will say in broad terms, so I hope that nothing that I say comes as a surprise to them. I raised some of the questions about faith schools admissions in a ten-minute Bill a couple of years ago, which contained the proposition that I will make today.

There is no question that this is a difficult issue because people have strongly held beliefs and there are the vested interests—I do not mean that in a judgmental or critical way—of religious bodies who are involved in running schools. Their ethos is reflected in schools and in the questions around choice of school or the ability of schools to choose pupils. Nevertheless, we must also consider the impact of admission policies on segregation and on the question whether it is right to discriminate on religious grounds when it is not considered appropriate to discriminate on racial grounds.

I take it as a given for the purposes of this debate that there are schools with a faith ethos—there are in fact thousands of voluntary-aided schools and voluntary-controlled schools. I also take it as a given, although it is not my preference, that there will be new faith schools, particularly for minority faiths who do not currently have schools. My personal preference would be that state schools were state schools and that religion and the state were separated, but for the purposes of this debate I will take it as read that there will be faith schools and new faith schools.

There are concerns about social and community cohesion caused by the admissions policies of those schools. I will not argue that that is in any way deliberate or widespread, but it is, in a number of cases, a logical consequence of the segregation caused by having selective admissions based on religion.

I start from the belief that it is wrong for children to be discriminated against in admissions to state schools on the basis of their race, sexual orientation or religion—that is in itself wrong. It is worse in respect of religion because often, although not all the time, it usually involves what is, in effect, indirect segregation, discrimination and selection on racial grounds. So, even though the selection is against religion, because of the association of religions with certain racial groups in this country, not exclusively but commonly, there is that consequence. On principle, given that education is a state function, the argument has to be made against the default of there being selection, discrimination or increased segregation on religious grounds.

The second problem over and above the principle of discrimination is that of segregation. I accept, of course, that the major cause of segregation, particularly in our cities, is people living in different places according to their race and, often as a consequence, their religious faith. We already have segregation in housing, and that is why in some areas there are only Asian children in a school. Indeed, that may sometimes be a Church of England school in a certain area where housing is mainly occupied by people from the Asian community who are often Muslim, possibly Hindu or from one of many other religions. There are some areas where housing is occupied by white people who will tend not to be Hindu or Muslim but are likely to be members of the Christian faith—Catholic or Protestant or of no faith at all—and they will go to a school in their area. That is unfortunate. We need to do something about that and nothing I say detracts from that.

It is also the case that some schools of mixed race and religion are faith schools. There is no doubt about that. However, as soon as a faith test is applied for an over-subscribed school, which enables 100 per cent. of the children selected for that school from the area to be of one faith, it cannot mathematically do anything other than tend to increase existing segregation. I am not saying that segregation is due in the main to discrimination in admissions, and I am not arguing that all schools that select or indeed all faith schools—many of which do not select because they are not over-subscribed or do not have a selective policy—are responsible for segregation. However, in a number of cases those schools will increase the segregation that exists as a natural consequence of applying a religious or faith test, which in the main aligns along racial grounds, to those who apply. That is a logical consequence.

I hope that that will be accepted. Hon. Members will argue that it is a price we have to pay and that ameliorative steps should be taken by schools to ensure that young people in schools that are 100 per cent. of one faith and often of one race are exposed to young people of other faiths and religions. I do not doubt the Government's sincerity in seeking that, particularly given some of the amendments calling for a duty to act in favour of social cohesion which were tabled just this week to the Bill that is in the House of Lords. I understand that, but I argue that it would not be as necessary if there were not additional segregation and discrimination based on the religion or claimed religion of the children or parents applying for a school, particularly if it is over-subscribed.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I think the hon. Gentleman accepts what I am about to say, but I would like confirmation. Given that faith and ethnicity do not go together, what he describes as segregation in some instances could be a force for integration in others. For example, there is evidence that Roman Catholic schools have a higher proportion of people from a minority ethnic group, making up between 5 and 40 per cent., than state or non-Roman Catholic schools. Therefore, the faith school may be a force for racial integration. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that can be the case?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

No, I think that the right hon. Gentleman's comparator is flawed. Many Catholic schools are in urban areas, and rightly so. I have no problem with that. The comparator for those schools is not all other schools, but non-faith schools also in urban areas that do not apply a religious selection test when they are over-subscribed. It is logical that if a school takes from its local catchment area A, segregated though it may be on a 70/30 per cent. split, then a faith school in area B, which is also split 70/30, would not take on pupils according to that split if people from area A were allowed, purely on the basis of their faith, to overtake minority children from area B in gaining admission to that school. In such areas, although there will still perhaps be a mix on racial or religious grounds, it would not be as great as it would be if there were no selection or selective pressure.

There is mathematically no alternative way of looking at the situation for those faith schools that select on the basis of religion, are over-subscribed, and can therefore select from a wider area and have bused across the district, town or city at the expense of the local taxpayer people of their religion to have in their school. That is why, in some northern cities, some faith schools are 100 per cent. white, even in a city where one would not expect that and even despite housing segregation, and some schools that are 100 per cent. or nearly 100 per cent. Asian are actually Church of England schools; they just take people from their local area.

My thesis is that there is no logical way to argue that a selection test for over-subscribed schools does not increase segregation. That is what they say they want to do. They say that they want to have a school where, for example, Catholic parents can send their children in preference to other local children who are not Catholic.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

The hon. Gentleman says "they". No doubt in saying what "they" want we also include parents. Does he recognise the fundamental human right of a parent to choose to have their child educated in a faith school, and does he recognise that the admissions process should properly enable that right to be fulfilled?

S

An eminently reasonable question

Submitted by Susan Kirby

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

The hon. Gentleman reminds me to declare my interest: I am an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. I should have said that at the outset. I am also a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We have published a report on these issues, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no fundamental human right requiring the state to provide a faith-based education so that parents can have their children educated in that way. That point is misunderstood. Indeed, I believe that a Minister got it wrong in the House of Lords at an earlier stage in the passage of the Education and Inspections Bill.

Let us be clear: there is a human right for people to have freedom of religious belief, but upholding that human right does not require the state to provide a faith school. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister could confirm that. It does require the state to provide to parents—and, I would argue, children who are competent enough to make the decision—an opt-out from religious education where that is directional, or could be directional, and from compulsory prayer. Such opt-outs exist for the protection of religious belief, but there is no right of parents to have a school of their choosing. Otherwise, we would be in difficulty, because parents would say that they had a human right to be provided with a school for Scientology or another religion where there was not otherwise demand. That is a relief to the Government, I am sure, because even this Government would not be able to afford the growth in new schools that would be required.

Mr. Burrowes brings me to another point that I wanted to raise, which is the right to non-discrimination of people who are selected against. There is a group of people who do not have their own school. No school that I know of gives parents preference if they are not religious. Most religions have schools, and, with the new faith schools for Muslims, more religions will have schools, if they are available in the area, at which members of the religion could get preferential treatment in admissions. But for non-religious parents there is no secular school that says, "We're not going to let this Christian child in; we're going to take this child of an atheist, even though they live further away." However, non-religious parents who cannot fulfil the church attendance test and the faith test required by some schools are being unfairly treated on admissions, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is a breach of their right to non-discrimination.

I believe that the Government will be in trouble on these issues, with cases brought under anti-discrimination law, unless they make the exemption so wide as to make it extremely difficult for such a case to be brought. I hope that hon. Members see the principle of what I am saying and will ask in response, "What is the solution? What is the remedy for a non-religious parent who would like there to be a school at which they are given preference?"

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Is not the hon. Gentleman seeking the perfect world of choice? Is not some choice, however imperfect, better than the limited choice that he is advocating?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

We could get into a long debate about what is meant by choice. Obviously, many in the education world would argue that a diversity of schools offers a diversity of options for parents, enabling them to choose which school to apply to, but if those schools are selective, it is the schools that are choosing the pupils. All that the parents can do is express a preference or seek to apply, so we must be careful when we talk about choice in education. Clearly, I speak as someone who does not believe that there should be selection on the grounds of educational attainment either.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

In a moment. The other response to the point made by Mr. Gibb, to whom I am grateful for debating the issue in what is, after all, a debating Chamber, is that things are being offered that are of benefit to certain people, but the principle of anti-discrimination law is that things should be provided equally as far as possible. Sometimes, choice for a few people, while excluding automatically choice for others, is not better than no choice at all. I think that that is made clear by the Equality Act 2006, for which, I am pleased to say, the hon. Gentleman's party voted. Indeed, article 14 of the European convention on human rights states that people are entitled to enjoy their human rights without discrimination. Therefore, public authorities in particular must be careful not to provide choices for the few at the expense of others, or the many; they must provide choices on an equal basis.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I am listening carefully to the case that the hon. Gentleman is building for those who may have no religious faith. Has he seen the results of the Guardian/ICM poll that showed that 65 per cent. of people oppose religious schools? They do not support religious schools and are excluded from the argument that is being advanced.

J

Does he think that 65% should be allowed to dictate to the other 35% on this matter? If 65% of the population were in favour of religious schools would be acceptable to make them compulsory for everyone?...

Submitted by John Birtill Continue reading (and 2 more annotations)

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

Indeed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is the case that a large number of people do not have a preference for faith schools. I do not believe that, simply because they do not have a preference, consideration cannot be given to providing options for those who do want faith schools, but that must be done on a fair basis. At the moment, it is not necessary, as I said. It has perverse consequences to do with segregation. It is in principle wrong to allow discrimination on the grounds of religion which we do not allow on the grounds of race or politics. Someone could say, "I want my child to go to a socialist school" or "I want my child to go to a white-only school." The same arguments could be applied in that respect. Some people do feel that way, but we do not meet those preferences. Not every choice or preference of people needs to be met if that is bad for society or is at the expense of others. That is not in any way to question the intentions of those who provide faith-based education or those who wish for it. I am referring to decisions that the Government should make and I believe that the Government are making the wrong decisions in these areas.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that it would be difficult to justify non-faith schools discriminating against students on the basis of religion? Indeed, that would be unlawful. If that principle applies to non-faith schools, how does one reconcile that with the different principle applying in the case of faith schools?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

It is difficult to justify it. It is a curious thing. It is difficult to justify any discrimination by state schools against local people on the basis of their parents' private beliefs in favour of people who believe something else and go to a different building on a Sunday, or who claim to believe something else and feel that they ought to go to a different building on a Sunday in order to get their kid into the school of their choice.

It is often argued that faith schools are popular because they are good. However, the evidence in that regard is not clear. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and I had discussions about this issue during a long Adjournment debate prompted by Mr. Allen. It may well be that because of the preference of middle-class people for faith schools they will often have better results. I am not making a judgment; that is the case, although it does not apply to Catholic schools in inner-city areas, where faith schools are a working-class preference. However, when those results are compared to those of the right comparator of schools that are non-faith, and adjusted for free school meals or other proxies of social background, one does not find a significant difference in the educational attainment.

I do not think that there is anything in the spiritual nature of a school that says that its pupils will be better at maths because they pray. As I said in a debate in the main Chamber the other day, there is some evidence, from a large, controlled trial, that prayer does not affect recovery from surgery. It is therefore hard to believe that mere prayer alone is likely to produce better results—believe me, I tried it during my medical studies.

It is harsh to tell community schools that their ethos is so deficient and their discipline so awry that they are incapable of getting results as good as those of faith schools. If hon. Members pray in aid of faith schools and think that such schools will get better results because their ethos and discipline is better, they must show evidence that schools are struggling with results or discipline because they do not have such a religious ethos. That would be hard to prove, unfair on those schools and too much of a generalisation. We should accept that schools are neutral in that respect.

Before I move on to the second part of my speech, I must point out that in the free-for-all on the issues of selection on religious grounds and introducing quotas to encourage integration, one option that was not considered was that there should be no segregation or discrimination at all on religious grounds. I am sorry that that option has not been raised in the debate.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I want to mention the Roman Catholic diocese of Leeds, which includes Bradford metropolitan district and my constituency, which is in the process of reducing the number of Catholic schools because there is over-provision. If that happens, rather than there being a mix of Christians of other orientations and Muslims in those schools—Holy Family school in my constituency, for example, has a real mix—they will be more and more exclusive to Roman Catholics. Has the hon. Gentleman come across that phenomenon in other parts of the country?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I am sure that it happens in other parts of the country, and that is the point. Generally, segregation applies only in over-subscribed schools, because anyone can fill places that are not filled. I do not accuse schools of excluding people when there are unfilled places. Indeed, I believe that the Government recently made it clear that that is not permitted. The hon. Lady makes an important point, however: when schools are over-subscribed there is increased segregation and selection, and one can create that situation by deleting surplus and potentially surplus places and places that are not filled exclusively by people from the relevant faith. That might not be the intention of the diocese she mentions, but it is certainly a consequence, and politicians and the Government have to consider consequences.

On Third Reading of the Education and Inspections Bill in the House of Lords on Monday, Lord Lester referred to the Tengur judgment of the Privy Council. In that case, he acted for the Mauritius Government against the Bishop of Port Louis. There was a system for allocating places at Roman Catholic secondary schools whereby half the intake was Roman Catholic. The Privy Council, which I believe has a legal standing there equivalent to that of our Court of Appeal, unanimously decided that that amounted to discrimination in the public domain and was contrary to section 16 of the constitution of Mauritius. Lord Lester argued that a similar approach could be applied in an appropriate case under the Human Rights Act 1998. Have the Government digested the consequences of that case?

I am conscious of the time and I know that others want to speak, so I turn to the second prong of the debate, and employment practices in faith schools.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I want to ask him about article 2 of the first protocol to the European convention on human rights. Does it not state:

"In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions"?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

That is right. That is why there is an opt-out from religious education that is not in the national curriculum, because that is very much a do-it-yourself matter in faith schools and can be quite specific for certain religions. There is also an opt-out from worship. All that means that religion cannot be forced. That is what freedom of religious expression means. It does not mean freedom to practise at the state's expense; it means freedom from the state imposing religion on children or their parents. That is clear. I do not have references from the Joint Committee on Human Rights report, but there is unanimity among public lawyers on that in relation to the Human Rights Act. There has never been a successful claim saying, "We must have a Muslim school to abide by that particular part of the protocol." I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured, but I am happy to send him a legal opinion on that, for free, after the debate.

I am keen to move on to the question of discrimination. Hon. Members will know that sections 58 and 60 of the School Standards and FrameworkAct 1998 permit voluntary-aided schools to impose a faith test on teachers. Applicants can be appointed or not and teachers can be promoted or not on the basis of their personal religious beliefs and their conduct in respect of the ethos of that religion. That has always been controversial, and my party has always opposed it. I know that my hon. Friend Greg Mulholland, who may not have agreed wholly with the first part of my speech, is now listening intently from the Front Bench. My party opposed those measures because we do not believethat it is appropriate for state schools to apply tests of private religious belief to teachers of maths, geography or history, to head teachers or even to teachersof religious education. They are teaching, not proselytising.

I understand why the Church of England might want to apply faith tests to people who wish to become priests—perhaps it does apply them—but that is a genuine occupational requirement. It is not a genuine occupational requirement for a teacher in a state school to have particular private religious beliefs, to go to a certain building on a Sunday or to sleep with a person of the opposite gender in their private life. They have a duty to obey the law and not to bring the school into disrepute—I understand that—but private is private. Freedom of religion should mean that one's career and prospects of promotion will not be blighted because of the ability of a state school to impose a religious test. That is why the measures are controversial.

The legislation applies not only to voluntary-aided schools, but to voluntary controlled schools, in which 100 per cent. of the funding for running costs and capital is paid by the state, and a minority of governors are faith governors. In voluntary-controlled schools,20 per cent. of teachers can be reserved teachers, which means that they are qualified to teach RE to the ethos of that school. That can have serious consequences, particularly when such a school is the only school in town for teachers who wish to teach in that area, particularly teachers who are interested in teaching RE to a curriculum rather than in a proselytising way. I agree that it might be difficult for a teacher of the wrong religion or no religion to try to convert pupils, but that is not what state schools are for. Neither are they there to keep pupils on the straight and narrow as regards their religion.

The Government propose to expand those measures to enable voluntary-aided schools to apply a faith test to all staff, including non-teaching staff, but they have not adequately consulted the unions. I have had correspondence from the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, from the GMB and Unison, and I have spoken to the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. They all expressed concern about the proposals and the lack of consultation. Did the Minister write to the unions about this? What documentation was sent to them at general secretary level? With whom at the trade unions was this discussed? It is a serious matter for them.

Hon. Members may also be interested to know the view of Trevor Phillips, who was recently appointed to the chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. In his evidence to the Select Committee on Education and Skills earlier this month, he said, at question 451 of the uncorrected transcript, that

"the rule is very straightforward...You compete for a job and you are judged on your suitability for that job. The question of"— other elements of your life—

"should never enter into it."

His concern is that policies have got to the point where

"we recognise difference even if it is at the cost of equality."

He also said that diversity is not damaging to society, adding:

"What is damaging to our society is the recognition of diversity without the recognition of commonality".

There is widespread concern about how that might operate.

It has hitherto not been permitted to include head teachers in voluntary-controlled schools among the20 per cent. of those who are reserved teachers and who are subject to a faith test and to sanctions if their private conduct is outwith the school's ethos. However, the second change that the Government propose is to include head teachers in that 20 per cent. That has serious implications for the prospects of many senior teachers, who might want to apply for headship, but who might feel that they will not pass the religion test because they do not share the religious beliefs of the school to which they wish to apply, or who, having applied, might find that a less qualified person is given the job.

Can the Government give any justification for introducing this rule, especially at a time when there is a shortage of head teachers? Can the Minister tell us of any problems with heads who have been appointed on the basis of their ability to lead a school and to teach, but who have let the school's ethos go to wrack and ruin simply because they do not pitch up often enough at a place of worship on the prescribed day in their spare time or because they are not sufficiently religious in their private lives? If the Government cannot show that there is a problem, they should not increase the range of people to whom the discrimination should apply.

We have not had a chance to debate the provision in the House, although we may do so tomorrow when the Education and Inspections Bill returns to the Floor of the House for consideration of Lords amendments in what, given the nature of these things, will be a short debate. However, I hope that the Minister will respond to my specific questions about the consultation and about how he can justify people being subjected to a faith test when seeking appointment as a school secretary or teaching assistant or when seeking promotion.

As the Minister will know, staff members in such circumstances have a defence—should they be aware of it—in the employment discrimination regulations. Those who are aware of the regulations and who have the funding can bring a case to say that there is not a genuine occupational requirement. However, the Minister will also know that some religious organisations and schools feel that requiring secretaries or other such staff to lead prayers once a month gives them a genuine occupational reason to say that there must be a faith test, because they could not allow someone who was not of the right faith to lead prayers if that was part of the job. What faith does the Minister have that the genuine occupational requirement provisions of employment discrimination law will offer adequate protection ab initio, rather than once someone has suffered, and ensure that people are not discriminated against? It is bad enough that teaching staff might be affected, but why are non-teaching staff required to be of a particular religion before a state school can employ them? After all, the state pays 100 per cent. of the salary costs and the vast majority of the capital costs of voluntary-aided schools.

I am grateful to the House for giving me time to make my points. I look forward to hon. Members' contributions and to the Minister's response.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate 3:03 pm, 1st November 2006

I am grateful to Dr. Harris for raising this important issue. The debate is very timely; indeed, it has been timely for many years, and I will talk particularly about the historical basis of faith schools, although I do not want to get into a separate debate. However, it is important not to divorce ourselves from where we have come from or to see the debate in a vacuum, because faith schools have benefited this country over the years.

First, however, I should register, rather than formally declare, an interest. My constituency has a large number of faith schools, including Church of England schools, Jewish schools such as Wolfson Hillel primary school, and several Catholic schools. I therefore see the range of faith schools and the impact that they have on my constituency. There is a diverse community in my constituency; indeed, in terms of Conservative representation, there is a relatively high proportion of members from the Hindu and Muslim communities, who also benefit very much from faith schools.

I have been the governor of a Church of England school for more than 12 years and I have four children at my Church school. Indeed, as a parent governor, I am currently taking part in discussions about the admissions criteria of our school, and we have a couple of weeks left to propose any amendments. I therefore listened with great care to the hon. Gentleman to see whether he could come up with any suggestions to improve the current state of play, which properly recognises not only the preference for parents with a faith, but the sibling criteria, although that is a debate for another day.

The hon. Gentleman spoke primarily about discrimination, which he sought to make the focus of the debate. However, there is also the issue of selection. To a certain extent, one could say that any selection involves discrimination, and that is the case in a variety of schools of different complexions. One has to accept, however, that discrimination is not wrong per se; the issue is whether it is done on the right grounds and whether it is properly proportionate to the position and to the benefits that are entailed.

The faith test, which is at the heart of this debate and of the debate about admissions processes, has been criticised. Why should there be a faith test? I want to set faith schools and particularly Church schools in their historical context, because we need to recognise where faith schools are coming from. They have not suddenly decided to have an admissions process that includes a faith test, and there is not a vacuum in that respect. One has to recognise that Churches have played an important historical role in making education available not only to Church members, but to the wider populace. Before the state became involved in funding education, that is how much education was provided in areas of great need, and education was extended to the wider community. One must recognise that that is where we have come from and, indeed, where we should seek to go when looking at the admissions process.

The Archbishop of Canterbury referred to the value of Church schools in March, when he reaffirmed the Church's long history. He stated:

"Its involvement in education was a completely natural outgrowth of its pastoral vocation to be present in every community."

He went on to outline the Church's involvement in faith schools in areas of great need and social deprivation. Historically, the Church has been present throughout the country, reaching out to, and helping to educate, the wider community. It has not been there primarily to select from its membership, but to be of value to the country.

We need to look at that context when considering the admissions process and to recognise that the Church is inextricably linked with education in this country. About 25 per cent. of all state primary schools are Church of England schools, and one can add a number of Catholic schools, Jewish schools and other faith schools. The Church's involvement in such schools is practical and financial. It also involves governance, because the Church is involved as a governor. There is therefore a fixed attachment to the Church, and that should provide the opportunity and the freedom to define admissions to the school.

It is right that the admissions process should properly supplement and support a school's faith basis. It is not just an add-on for the school; it is fundamental to its character, ethos and historical basis in the community and, indeed, the country.

D

The hypocrisy of this faith schools debate is staggering. I come from Northern Ireland where it is as clear as day that they have been disastrous. Yet at a time when we are trying to bring people together the government is actively encouraging them. It is beyond all logic. Government support seems to be driven largely by the personal prejudice of the Prime Minister and in my book is one more reason why he should go before the damage is irreversible. It might be possible to argue that faith schools inculcate morality into the populace, but attendance at faith schools does not seem to have prevented some Catholic IRA members and some islamicists from blowing people up, and his own preofessed faith does not seem to have given the PM pause when it came to lying about WMDs or blackguarding poor Dr Kelly. The argument that they provide a better education hardly bears analysis. They merely rob state schools of good pupils. The almost mediaeval sensibility which underpins all this is frightening indeed. It's as if The Enlightenment never happened.

Submitted by David Quinn

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

Would the hon. Gentleman apply the same argument elsewhere? Would he entirely support non-faith schools that wished to apply a faith test to admissions policy?

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

It is a matter for that school to determine. I would be willing to allow the school the freedom to determine the selection, although it might be somewhat perverse for it to want to follow such a process through.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

Do I understand the hon. Gentleman to be saying that he would support a policy whereby a non-faith school could apply a faith test in selecting students for admission? Would he regard that as reasonable?

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the point. Obviously, there are rules to allow one to object to that process, but non-faith schools should properly have the freedom to develop a character and ethos, and that should be there for all to see in the admissions process. It is important that any such process properly supports and supplements the character and basis of the school.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying that a non-faith school—a specifically non-religious school—with an ethos that is morally right, appropriate and about good behaviour, should, if it is over-subscribed, be allowed to turn down for admission a child with religious parents, or a child who claims to be religious—although the latter are few and far between, in my experience—so that it can promote its ethos by preventing its membership from being polluted by those who are inimical to it. I think that that is what he agreed.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

No. To clarify the position, it is not simply a matter of their being allowed to develop a faith test. There should be freedom to determine the character of the school, and the way in which it is developing, even in a non-faith way.

As to the employment argument, it is important to recognise that a school with a faith ethos should properly be allowed to employ teachers with a faith. Faith is not simply a matter of an occupational requirement to say prayers or deliver an assembly. Faith permeates a faith school, including different areas of the curriculum and activities. Primarily, there should be freedom to ask teachers employed in faith schools to lead prayers and to promote faith values; however, the issue is relevant not just in religious education, but in other areas, so that pupils receive a holistic education. That is very much what parents like about faith schools. They do not see them as just somewhere for children to hear prayers and have a good religious assembly. Parents recognise that the faith basis of schools permeates the education and standards in the school.

Parents and governors alike no doubt recognise and appreciate the proper freedom that is given to employ head teachers and teachers who can endorse and promote the values at the heart of the success of many schools. Perhaps a distinction can be made as to school support staff, but there should be an opportunity for those at the front line to promote the ethos of the school. It is an important factor in a school and one recognised by parents, which is why faith schools are popular. Parents know that it is not simply on one day a week when children will hear prayers and take part in assembly; teachers will be promoting the school ethos.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

Is the hon. Gentleman happy, then, that if two people applied for the job of teaching maths or geography and one was better qualified than the other but being of the wrong religion or no religion was unable sincerely to lead prayers, the less well qualified teacher should, all other things being equal, be appointed, so as to be able sincerely to lead prayers? Does the hon. Gentleman consider that to be such an important aspect of state education that it is a ground for appointing less good teachers? That is the effect of current and proposed law.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

The hon. Gentleman is looking for the lowest common denominator. Obviously the school would want the best qualified teacher for the job, but an important factor in considering the best qualified teacher, rather than the worst, would be the ability properly to promote and support the school's fundamental ethos. It is important for the governing body to have the right to make inquiries about applicants' faith. It should not be constrained by law, which should recognise that teachers whom it employs should be able to support the fundamental ethos of the school. It might well be perverse, and it would be relevant, if the applicant were a secularist or, indeed, a Satanist. It would be relevant to the employment of a teacher to promote the school's ethos.

The debate is about admissions and employment, but it should also be about recognising the context in which faith schools have served us well for many years. They have certainly served my constituents in Enfield, Southgate well. We should not be looking for ways to restrict or undermine, through admissions or employment, the fundamental ethos of those schools. We should, on the other hand, be looking to expand them.

A

Many of us are frightened by the way Mr. Burrowes seeks to "expand" religiosity's incursion upon civil society. Just because someone has the arrogance to believe they can interpret God's will doesn't give them the right to defy humanist precepts, whose primacy is based on the universality of their application, regardless of a person's faith or lack thereof. Plus many of us who do have a spiritual side believe that the only sincere discussion with God is a private one. Public displays of faith have far too often masked other, more sinister agendas. Look at how much blood is spilt in the name of religion.

Submitted by Alan Sitkin Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development 3:15 pm, 1st November 2006

For me, the debate is not just about admissions policy, although that is its context. I want to consider what the Secretary of State said only a few weeks ago. I congratulate him on being tremendously courageous in meeting the challenges of multiculturalism. I am a great believer in multiculturalism and the spirit of multiculturalism. I am against segregation, and I think that in his great spirited way the Secretary of State was trying to break down barriers and avoid future segregation. For that he was slapped down by the whole religious lobby.

I find that very sad, because the Secretary of State was thinking, as we say in new Labour, for the long term—not tomorrow or the day after but perhaps 15 or 20 years' time. We do not want groups of people in society who believe that one religion is superior to another—a generation in which some believe that the only way is jihad and others believe it is Khalistan, and in which there are also Hindu fundamentalists. By the way, I am of Hindu and Sikh descent, and I am very happy to be so, although I am a non-believer. I was raised in both of those beliefs and went to a state school. I had no problem with learning about all faiths.

I have raised the issue of faith schools previously. In 2001, I expressed my fears about the legislation with the then Secretary of State, now Baroness Morris. Five years later I still fear that we are going in the wrong direction. The present Secretary of State has been trying to put matters right, and perhaps temporarily he has gone part of the way to addressing the fears of those who have worried unnecessarily. He was talking about a change of policy for new faith schools, not existing ones.

When Baroness Morris was Secretary of State she was asked in the Education and Skills Committee by my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor:

"Is it likely, for example, that a new Muslim school or a new Sikh school would admit a large number of Catholics?"

She said:

"I think it is very likely. My feeling is that that is what happens. Church of England schools do, Roman Catholic schools do, they are multi-racial. We now have quite a lot of plans to change the admissions framework."

Can the Minister tell me how many Catholics attend Muslim schools, and how many attend Sikh schools? We are five years down the road, and the Secretary of State had faith five years ago that people would enter other schools. I should like to see the evidence that demonstrates that progress has been made. If the Minister can produce it, I shall be happy to say that we are going in the right direction.

I come from a very liberal Hindu family, and my father would not in a million years have sent me to a Muslim school—or a Sikh school for that matter; he is a devout Hindu. If we want to change society and keep the spirit of multiculturalism we shall have to create a mechanism for integration between communities. Otherwise parallel communities will be built up in schools in years to come. In that respect I praise the Secretary of State for trying something new and courageous. I am, as I said, sorry that we have had to move away from what he said. We have changed to a voluntary route. I am happy to see to what extent it works, because sooner or later we will have to move further and make legislative changes.

I sincerely believe that if we are to reduce the number of divisions that exist in society, we will need a mechanism to bring different communities together. The religious gap between the Christian communities is much smaller, although there are Roman Catholic schools and Church of England schools, than the huge gap between the Muslim, Hindu and the Sikh communities. Those who do not recognise that ignore the history of the past 1,000 years and what happened in the Indian subcontinent, particularly during the partition in 1947. They destroy that; they ignore it at their peril, because we will pay a heavy price here in years to come. We will be old people and somebody else will be running the show, but people will wonder why things are going the way they are and why there are more divisions than ever before. Things will go wrong today, not then, if we allow more faith schools but with no integration.

That is my fear, although I hope that I am wrong about it. I mentioned it over and over again to the previous Secretary of State, and I praise the present Secretary of State for being courageous. As I said, he was slapped down heavily and unfairly. I hope that the Minister will tell him that I admire his courage and the spirit in which he tried to do what he did. I shall say no more than that because I know that the debate is about admissions, but I have tried to highlight the wider aspect of admissions policy and its consequences.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury 3:22 pm, 1st November 2006

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones. I apologise for the fact that my voice is not in better working order.

I congratulate Dr. Harris on securing the debate. I think of him, perhaps wrongly, as the Richard Dawkins of the House of Commons, in respect of the doggedness and ingenuity with which he puts his arguments. Roger Berry is perhaps competing for that title.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I take that as a compliment.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has done us a service by obtaining the debate. It has proved that in practice it is hard, if not impossible, to separate the question of admissions, which he raised at the start of his remarks, from the question of faith schools generally. That was proved by the remarks of Dr. Kumar.

In the brief time available, I want to reflect on the25 per cent. proposal, to which the Government appear to be marching up the hill; apparently, there has now been a march down from the top of the hill. In all the debate about the proposal, two undercurrents or motives were supporting it. One has been expounded at its most eloquent by the hon. Member for Oxford,West and Abingdon—the straightforward secularist argument. The second, which cropped up a few moments ago, was a straightforward feeling that action was necessary to crack down on the Islamists.

Muslim schools were an important factor in the debate. I have an interest in that I represent 9,000 Muslim constituents—they constitute 10.7 per cent. of my constituents, which is the largest percentage in respect of any Conservative Member of Parliament. Although some non-Muslim voters did not quite put it this way during the debate on the 25 per cent., I feel that they were wondering why their schools should be penalised in order that the Government might crack down on the Islamists.

My Muslim constituents would have been asking a different question, as, indeed, they told me: why should we be victimised in this way by the Government because we want to have our own faith schools on the same terms as the other religions? A very important question is whether fears of Muslim schools are justified. I want to take a step back, and to speak briefly about Islamism in order to answer it. I should give a health warning: I am not an expert on Islam. The lack of experts on Islam is a problem in the Commons.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury

I see one. I am also not an expert on Islamism, which I would define as being the perversion and distortion of a great and noble religion. Islamism has three features that concern me.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

I fear that we may slightly move off the topic, so before we do, may I ask the hon. Gentleman a simple question? Does he agree that Muslim schools should be treated in exactly the same way as Catholic and Church of England schools? If so, and if schools of faith should be able to apply a faith test for admissions, why on earth should non-faith schools be denied that choice?

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury

The hon. Gentleman's first question leads me to exactly where I want to go. I am going there and to admissions directly, but I shall do so via this route of Islamism.

As I see it, there are three features of Islamism. One is the extreme distinction that it draws between what it calls the "house of Islam" and the "house of war". I understand that it is not a feature of mainstream Muslim thought. Secondly, the Islamists argue that the loyalty of Muslims is primarily, politically, to the umma—the body of Muslims worldwide—and not to the country in which they happen to be living. Thirdly, there is the question of the application of the sharia.

I come directly to the questions of whether Muslim schools should be in the state sector and what their admissions policies should be, which were put to me a few moments ago. If we examine where most Muslim schools are located now, we find that they are mostly in the private sector. If someone were to ask me whether Islamism—this distorted form of Islam—is being taught in them, my answer would be that I do not know. I do know that if more of them were in the state sector, where many of them wish to be and where they can be regulated, inspected and subject to all the norms that the Government properly recognise, there would be far less chance of their being Islamist in character and far more chance of their being mainstream Islamic in character.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of something that David Bell, the former chief inspector of schools, said last January. Referring to the Muslim faith schools, he said that he was worried that

"many young people were being educated with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society".

He added that we

"must not allow our recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation".

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury

The question is: how do we best not allow that? My answer is that it would be better if more Muslim schools were in the state sector, where they can be regulated, inspected and subject to all the norms that the Department for Education and Skills applies. That is where admissions comes in. If Muslim schools were compelled to take 25 per cent. of their pupils from non-Muslim backgrounds, would they be more likely to come into the state sector or less? They would be less likely to come in, which was one of the many reasons why I was opposed to the 25 per cent. proposal that was being floated, and why I welcome the new emphasis that the Government have rightly put on inspecting for cohesion.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has done us a service in raising these complex issues of faith, education and choice. The more likely it is that faith schools control their own admissions in the way that they have done since the Butler settlement, the more likely it is that Muslim schools, in particular, would be able to come into the state sector and be subject to all the norms that the DFES requires, and thereby social cohesion would be advanced. I am happy to have been able to make that point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to do so.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Education) 3:29 pm, 1st November 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Harris on securing this timely debate. I greatly respect his strong feelings and the eloquence with which he presented his views, which are shared by some MPs in all parties. Indeed, there is unquestionably a great deal of logic in his arguments. However, there are also MPs in all parties who do not share his conclusions.

I am here to give not my personal view but that of my party. I, too, will start by declaring an interest. I am a practising Catholic and married to an Anglican who is a primary school teacher currently teaching in a Catholic school. I was educated in faith schools, but my teachers notably included many who were not Catholics. I like to think that during my time at school I learned a lot—although perhaps not enough—about other faiths and adopted tolerance to the many faiths and cultures that existed and to people who have no faith and come from a secular background.

It is important to say that there are many excellent and popular faith schools throughout the country and they have been part of the education system in Britain for many years. My party recognises that the school system historically owes much—this echoes the point made by Mr. Burrowes—to the provision of Anglican, nonconformist and Catholic Church schools, both primary and secondary. We also accept the logic of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 which allows other faiths access to state funding for their schools.

I want to make it clear that my party does not argue, and has not argued, for removal of state funding from faith schools. We recognise their valuable role in this country's education system, but we are all aware that faith education is an important issue that polarises opinion. This is a timely debate because we have all seen the coverage of the wider issue of the role that faith plays in our society, and of religious dress and symbols in the workplace. We must accept that that is all part of the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon raised two specific points and I shall take them in reverse order. First, on employment restrictions, my party remains opposed to extending the right of schools to select staff on religious grounds to head teachers and non-teaching staff. We believe that that could be discriminatory under employment law and is largely unnecessary. What is absolutely necessary is that anyone working in a school must have the ethos of the school. That applies to my wife, Raegan, who is not of the same faith as the school in which she teaches, and to everyone else, including the head teacher and the caretaker. Everyone working in a school should share its ethos, whether it is a faith or non-faith school.

We opposed the introduction of a 20 per cent. quota in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and proposed amendments to sections 58 and 60, as my hon. Friend explained. The new Government amendment to that Act retains, approves and extends what we believe to be problematic and discriminatory.

Secondly, the crux of the debate is admissions, which is topical in the light of the Baker amendment. My party was thoroughly opposed to the Baker amendment. Although it was a helpful way of starting the debate, it was ill considered and, as more than one hon. Member has said, clearly had implications for the problem of religious fundamentalism in schools. Any quota—25 per cent. or otherwise—is artificial and could have a perverse effect. Apart from the worry that it might prevent local children from being able to get into a school that their parents had chosen, it could have a perverse effect if there were simply not enough children from the relevant faith to fill the quota, because children would have to be bussed in from a great distance to fulfil the non-faith quota. That is not a sensible way of approaching the matter.

There is a lot of pragmatism in the school sector. Admissions is clearly a challenging and complicated issue—we all acknowledge that—throughout the system, but many faith schools do not stick rigidly to a policy of preferential treatment even for local children of their faith. I know of faith schools in my area of West Yorkshire that are actively recruiting children who are not from their faith background because they do not have sufficient children to fill the school. The matter is not simple and we must be pragmatic. I want to make it clear that neither I nor my party shares my hon. Friend's conclusion that the right of faith schools to continue to select people from their faith community and live locally should be abolished.

Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood

Is it right for a faith school to reject a local, next-door applicant of a different faith while accepting someone who travels 10 or 15 miles because they happen to belong to the right faith? The idea that prevalence is to local students at faith schools does not always occur, as the hon. Gentleman may know.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Education)

I made it absolutely clear that the admissions issue is complicated, which is why we need diversity of provision. However, my party and I believe that we need local control to ensure that all children go to a school that fulfils their parents' desires.

I want to turn to the need for community cohesion. I am sure that we all agree that whether children are educated in faith or non-faith schools, the education must include tolerance of other faiths and cultures. We should concentrate on that challenge rather than on types of school. We have many popular schools that local parents want to continue, as I know from my experience and that of my wife. A statement from faith leaders on 7 February this year said,

"we believe that schools with a religious designation should teach not only their own faith but also an awareness of the tenets of other faiths".

It is vital that that happens. It is important that all schools—faith and non-faith—seek to build links with other faith and non-faith schools. If that happens—it is happening in my constituency—there will be better understanding and integration.

I commend the Government on outlawing interviewing to establish parents' religious commitment, which was long overdue. Such interviews are unnecessary and our concern was that it left the door open to selection for other reasons. As the Minister well knows, we are worried that the new Bill will lead to selection by ability, class or background. He disagrees, but our worries remain. I think we all agree that faith schools must not be used to allow selection by the back door and we must be mindful of that.

The challenge for all of us is to support an education system that promotes tolerance, understanding and co-operation, and allows us to maintain our individual identities but contributes to the wider and multicultural and multi-faith society that we live in.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 3:39 pm, 1st November 2006

I congratulate Dr. Harris on securing this important debate. The issue has been at the forefront of many people's minds during the past week, and it is one on which the hon. Gentleman has a long track record.

Faith schools have been a part of Britain's state education system since its beginnings. Some of the first free schools were established by the Christian Churches, and the Education Act 1944 protected and encouraged their development. I am only sorry that the hon. Gentleman has fallen out so badly with the origins of our state education system. Almost one third of schools are faith based.

We must appreciate that faith schools have been successful. Most parents who choose those schools for their children do so because they value the ethos and the religious education that they provide while still adhering to the national curriculum. Those issues must be a matter for parents rather than for the state. The record of faith schools is impressive. They produce results that are on average several percentage points higher than non-faith schools at primary and secondary level. Of the top 200 comprehensive schools, 42 per cent. are faith schools, even though faith schools represent only 17 per cent. of the total number of comprehensives.

The hon. Gentleman argues that when we takeinto account free school meals, for example, those schools are not as successful as the raw figures show. However, that is not true. A written answer to my hon. Friend Mr. Hoban on28 November 2005 from Jacqui Smith, the then Minister for Schools, showed that the percentage of pupils receiving free school meals and achieving five or more good GCSEs was better in faith schools than in non-faith schools. One could pick any example from the tables that the Minister provided, but I shall offer the hon. Gentleman only one. In 2004, of schools with 35.1 per cent. and50 per cent. of pupils eligible for free school meals,25.9 per cent. of pupils in non-faith schools achieved five or more GCSE grades A* to C, whereas in faith schools 36 per cent. of such pupils did so. Similar figures throughout the table contradict the hon. Gentleman's assertion.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

The answer that the hon. Gentleman reads out referred not to students on free school meals and their results, but to schools with a percentage of children on free school meals and their overall results. I do not think that that answer was broken down into children who receive a free school meal and children who do not. The overall difference is marginal and it may be due to other factors. I urge him to consider that point.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I shall, for free, send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the answer, and when he considers it in detail he will see that it backs up my argument.

The debate on faith schools in recent weeks has also focused on their effect on community cohesion. Catholic schools, in particular, pride themselves on how they are socially integrated. Again, based on free school meals, pupils in Catholic schools come from broadly similar backgrounds to pupils in other schools, and the proportions of pupils with special educational needs are similar to those in other schools. Indeed, they are slightly higher in Catholic secondary schools. The proportions of pupils from minority ethnic groups are also higher in Catholic schools.

Although parents should have the right to choose a faith school, we cannot be oblivious to the danger that educating a section of society in schools that are exclusively reserved for children of a particular religion may be divisive and undermine social cohesion. We have heard views from some quarters who say that allowing Muslim schools to become established may foster segregation and racial mistrust. I do not accept that argument, and neither does my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman, who has provided us with an incisive summary of the issues.

We cannot have a system in which some faiths are permitted to receive state funding and others are forbidden. Islam is one of the world's great religions and it is central to the lives of more than 1.5 million British citizens. As demand grows from faithful parents for the state to recognise, support and foster Muslim schools, so the Government are right to let them become part of the state sector and play the same role as Church of England schools, Catholic schools and Jewish schools. Muslim parents, Sikhs—there are two Sikh schools—and Hindus should have the same rights as Christian parents to send their children to schools that select their intake on the basis of faith.

I am unsure about whether segregation can be said to depend exclusively on faith. In many areas, schools are segregated because communities are segregated, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon concedes. There are wealthy areas where schools are socially homogeneous. Indeed, in wealthier areas, schools that select by faith often attract more socially diverse pupils than they would were they to select solely by catchment area.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I will not, because I have only a few minutes left. I am sorry.

What matters is that faith schools recognise their social responsibility to promote community cohesion. For that reason, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition, in his speech to the Conservative party conference last month, praised the Church of England's decision to offer at least 25 per cent. of places to children with no requirement that they come from families of practising Christians. That decision was about a group in society taking the action that it felt best and acting in a socially responsible manner. The Church of England made its decision because it thought it was the right thing to do. It would be fundamentally wrong and damaging to community relations to legislate to force faith schools to accept pupils of a different faith or of no faith at all, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon proposes.

That is why we disagreed with the amendment to the Education and Inspections Bill, tabled by Lord Baker, which would have required any new faith school to offer at least 25 per cent. of its places to pupils

"who do not follow the religion or the religious denomination of the school".

The Muslim community views such sentiments as an attack on Muslim schools, at a time when a small number of privately funded Muslim schools have expressed a desire to become part of the state sector. The proposal to include Muslim schools in the state sector, subject to the same national curriculum and inspection regime as other state schools, is welcome, and I hope that more will join them.

That process of integration will do a great deal to further the objective of community inclusion. I hope that Muslim schools will in time adopt the approach taken by the Church of England; however, it should not be foisted on them. We should recognise the feelings in the Muslim community about that, just as we should respect the position taken by Catholic and Jewish schools.

The same approach should apply to the employment of staff. In many faith schools, there is a clear feeling that each person within it is part of a community that is based on common values. The religious aspect of a faith school does not stop outside religious education lessons and collective worship; it lies at the very heart of every activity in which the school engages. That is why voluntary-aided faith schools are permitted to appoint teaching staff on the basis of faith. It ensures that every teacher at the school supports the school's ethos and values.

The Government propose to extend that derogation to non-teaching staff—when there is a genuine occupational requirement—for the same reasons. Our approach to employment is the same as our approach to admissions. We welcome schools that embrace teachers and staff from outside the faith, just as we welcome the Church of England's decision on its admissions policies. However, it is absolutely a matter for schools. It is not a matter for prescription or legislation.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools and 14-19 Learners) 3:49 pm, 1st November 2006

I congratulate Dr. Harris on securing the debate, which has been constructive and well informed. We have taken our lead from him, because he spoke most constructively, and I thank him for that. The discussion is timely, given the debates that have taken place in another place, and their reflection in the media. The hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate of secular public services, but like me he is committed to ensuring fair access for all.

Faith schools have long been important to our education system and they have a history of providing good quality education for children of their own faiths and, in most cases, those of other faiths or none. They are popular with parents; the majority of faith schools are over-subscribed, and not just by members of their own faith. At the root of that popularity is their success, on which there has been debate between the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and Mr. Gibb. I contend from the evidence that I have seen that faith schools add more value than non-faith schools at both primary and secondary level. That holds true across most faith groups, and Muslim and Sikh schools perform particularly well in value-added terms at secondary level, although the size of the sample is such that most statisticians would probably discount it.

Times change, however, and like other schools faith schools must change with them. Along with setting high standards for their pupils, all schools, not just faith schools, must play a part in delivering a cohesive, strong society. As my ministerial colleague and noble Friend Lord Adonis said in the other place earlier this week on Third Reading of the Education and Inspections Bill, we have in recent weeks consulted people including key representatives of faith communities. Informed by those consultations, we have now decided that the best and most effective way forward is to place a duty on the governing bodies of all maintained schools to promote community cohesion. That duty will extend beyond existing and new faith schools to all schools, regardless of their admissions policies. A related duty on Ofsted to report on the contribution to community cohesion made by the school will ensure that all schools are held to account. Many good schools already make such a contribution because they recognise the important role that they have to play and its value to the education of their children. Reading the record of the debate in the other place, I was struck by the contribution made by Baroness Williams of Crosby, who spoke of the potential of schools of faith and no faith to work together to promote community cohesion and give religious education collectively. That is an interesting idea that I should like to discuss further.

Last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced a historic agreement reached with the Catholic Church. As now, new Catholic schools will be planned to meet Catholic need, and it is right that they should be, but there will also be scope for them to take on a new dimension. Where there is local demand, up to 25 per cent. more places will be added, with local agreement, to cater for non-Catholic families who would like their children to benefit from Catholic education. That follows the Church of England's decision to offer 25 per cent. of places at new Church of England schools to those of other faiths or no faith. The consultations that we have had with the Sikh community suggest that it strongly welcomes those from other faiths coming to their schools, as do those of Muslim faith.

I again refer hon. Members to the record of the House of Lords debate on Monday, when Baroness Walmsley reported on a ring-round that she had done in which she found that there were few applications from non-Muslim children to Muslim schools or from non-Sikhs to the Guru Nanak school in Hillingdon. I hope that that answers the question asked by my hon. Friend Dr. Kumar. Earlier the debate went off down a road that was a bit of a distraction from trying to tackle community cohesion. The duty to be imposed on schools goes to the heart of the problem, rather than being too distracted by admissions policies.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools and 14-19 Learners)

I shall give way very briefly, but the hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that that will reduce my capacity to respond to his other questions.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

As indeed has the comment that the Minister has just made. Does he accept that the proposal of a new academy school in Leicester to have a uniform requirement for all children, regardless of their religion, to wear the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, is likely to deter people from applying to it and might fall outwith its duty to promote social cohesion? Do the Government have any thoughts on such an example of a potential problem?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools and 14-19 Learners)

We believe that dress code is a matter for schools and local authorities. If a school, including an academy, were to have such a rule, the governing body would have to bear in mind its new duty on community cohesion. We might wish to challenge the rule at some point through the funding agreement for academies. I am not aware of the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I can examine it if it exists.

There are additional measures to promote social cohesion in the Education and Inspections Bill, particularly the new admissions code on which we are currently consulting. It makes it clear that faith schools should not adopt measures of faith affiliation and that a priest's reference will be sufficient. It abolishes interviews and sets out that admissions arrangements should make clear the way in which faith affiliation or membership will be measured. It prohibits the use of supplementary application forms to gather information that has a bearing on the operation of a school's published admissions criteria. Crucially, it also prohibits unfair oversubscription criteria including first preference first, which has been used by some faith schools to select. I hope that hon. Members agree that we are seeking to make progress. We agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that it is wrong to discriminate on racial grounds, but I argue that many faith schools are racially integrated. Catholic schools often have high levels of racial integration, and we cannot rely on a direct read-across.

I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that residential segregation informs educational segregation, which is a point to which we must apply ourselves. He debated whether ethos leads to better results, and we agree that ethos informs standards. That is one reason why we are proposing trust schools—so that non-faith-based organisations can use a trust to set up schools with a particular ethos and use them to raise standards. A member of the National Secular Society or the Humanist Society would be perfectly at liberty to enter a competition, formally propose a school and inform it with their ethos.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the contribution made in the other place by Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I can confirm that in the case referred to, the courts were addressing the question whether the admissions policies of formerly independent Catholic schools complied with the specific provisions of the constitution of Mauritius, not whether they complied with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights. UK law is more complex and allows for faith-based admissions policies such as those used in our maintained schools of religious character. In the UK, giving priority to children with reference to their faith is compliant with the Human Rights Act. I could say more on the matter, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes me to write to him I shalldo so.

Turning to other issues raised, I shall cut straight to the staffing of faith schools. We have tabled the amendments to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and perhaps it will help him if I outline what they are intended to do. They cover very narrow cases. Section 58 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 prohibits the head teacher of a foundation or voluntary-controlled school from being a reserved teacher. By their nature reserved teachers are appointed specifically to teach religious education in accordance with the tenets of a school's specified religion. Foundation and voluntary-controlled schools with a religious character are therefore unable to appoint head teachers specifically to teach religious education. That causes problems in small rural primary schools, for example, where a head teacher may be needed to teach that subject. The amendment that we have tabled will mean that the head teacher of a foundation or voluntary-controlled school will be able to be a reserved teacher only if they were appointed specifically to teach religious education as well as to carry out the duties of a head teacher. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is a narrow case.

Similarly, there is an amendment to section 60 of the 1998 Act on support staff. In summary, it sets out that an occupational requirement, testable at an employment tribunal as the hon. Gentleman said, will have to be proven. The provision will apply only to support staff with such a requirement to play a pastoral role.