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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): What about the hon. Lady's second point—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Dobson: I am making my speech.

The next objection is that the new clause might mean that children have to be bussed in. Let us suppose that a non-religious school in a particular locality serves the whole neighbourhood. If it becomes a religious school and uses the current admissions policy, it can reject children who live nearby who are not of the appropriate religious faith. So children living nearby would have to be bussed to schools elsewhere that will admit them and, as they travel out of their neighbourhood, they will pass vehicles coming in the other direction bringing religious children to the school in their area. I do not believe that that is a valid objection.

Angela Watkinson rose

Mr. Dobson: Another objection to the amendment is that it sets aside a long-standing arrangement between Church and state. As the parliamentary Labour party briefing said:

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That concordat was not set in tablets of stone. It must be as susceptible to change as any other part of the 1944 Act and the settlement. The House has passed no fewer than 42 Education Bills since 1944, many of which amended either the 1944 Act or subsequent Acts. We cannot say that that arrangement is sacrosanct and can never be changed.

Ms Ward: Does my right hon. Friend agree that all those Acts were introduced after a consultation process that involved many of the organisations and parties that would be affected by the proposed changes? In the case of the new clause, however, the very organisations that would be most affected and, indeed, the parents who would wish to send their children to faith schools have not been consulted. They have found out about the proposal through the media and have had little opportunity to make representations to their Member of Parliament or to have a view on the proposed change. That is not consultation with the organisations that count.

Mr. Dobson: I take my hon. Friend back to the start of my speech, when I pointed out that we are not proposing to initiate something but responding to initiatives by others. There has been considerable consultation by the Government and the Church of England. Not all the responses in any way favoured further extension of religious schools.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I am sorry to disturb the flow of my right hon. Friend's speech, but I should like to respond to the mention of the historic settlement and the lack of consultation. I am not sure how many Members know that the historic settlement of 1944 set up state sponsorship of faith schools, but based on a 50 per cent. state contribution. Since then, the faith contribution has fallen—and it is now proposed that it be 10 per cent. I do not believe that the general taxpayer has been consulted on that.

Mr. Dobson: I admire my hon. Friend's logic, because that was the very next point that I was going to make. The 50:50 split between the Churches and the taxpayer was not set in tablets of stone, and it is now proposed that the split be 90:10, which is a very large difference—a huge amount of extra investment. It has quite rightly been part of the Government's rubric that extra money must be matched by reform. I am proposing the reforms to match the extra funding.

In addition, I do not think that anybody envisaged in 1944 that the Church of England would propose a 25 per cent. increase in the number of its secondary schools, but that is what is being considered. The policy has been entered into without looking at the wider considerations.

Criticisms of our proposals appear to boil down to two: first, that they are an unwarranted, draconian interference, which would cause huge problems and a major upheaval; and secondly, that they are wholly unnecessary because religious schools are already doing what we propose. One or other of those propositions might be true, but both cannot be, and as it happens, I think that they are both wrong.

Angela Watkinson: I am exceedingly grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for finally giving way to me. Does he acknowledge that denominational schools throughout

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the country are highly successful because of the shared ethos between parents, the school and pupils, and that as a result they are heavily over-subscribed and are already rejecting large numbers of applicants from their own faiths? Demand is the reason for their success. Perhaps in the past they have had a higher proportion of non-denominational children, but as their success has increased, so has the number of pupils from their respective faiths. How can he justify rejecting even larger proportions of applicants from the respective faiths?

Mr. Dobson: The Church of England's proposition is rather like a hydraulic system. It would argue, I think, that it wants 100 extra schools and that those 100 extra schools could take up any displacement that results from the proposals. But in any case, there are plenty of over-subscribed non-religious schools. The situation applies across the board.

The problem is that although most religious schools try to play the game and be inclusive—as I have said, nearly all primary schools do so and quite a number of secondary schools do so too—the ones that do not bring the whole system into disrepute. The ones that are already inclusive would not be much affected by our proposition, and the others would be brought up to scratch.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I really must get on.

It is clear that no one has been very good at bringing such schools up to scratch until now. If all the faiths are saying that they want schools to be inclusive and some schools still are not, clearly there is not the machinery in the faith arrangements for them to do what their diocesan boards and the Muslim equivalents would like them to do. All we are proposing is a national minimum; introducing it should be a function of central Government.

Public opinion is on the side of my proposal. I do not attach much importance to opinion polls; I never have and I never will. However, a recent MORI poll showed a 2:1 majority against expanding faith schools; a 4:1 majority believed that it was right to require them to take in children from other faiths. I have listened to children's views as well. As I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can confirm, the Department for Education and Skills conducted, with Save the Children, a consultation on the proposal. Three quarters of the children who took part in that official consultation, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward) was asking, thought that faith schools were not a good idea. One said:

There were further comments like that.

I commend my proposals to my right hon. Friend. They have two advantages from a political point of view; they are popular and right, a combination which is not always available to us. My right hon. Friend is a friend, she is honourable, but in this case, I am afraid that she is not right: she is wrong. I urge her to accept our proposal. There may be better ways of introducing of it, and we are happy with that. There should be a minimum of 25 per cent., preferably for all faith schools, not just new ones, which would reduce the divisions in our society.

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I return again to my right hon. Friend's briefing, which says:

The place where children can best do so is school, and we should promote that. Members sometimes ask in the House, "What will people think in future about we are doing today?" I am not usually in a portentous mode, and try to avoid that sort of thing. However, I will adopt that mode now because if we do not work today—not tomorrow, not in 10 years' time—to counter division and exclusion, we may promote a ghastly society with groups at one another's throats; it would be like "A Clockwork Orange", "Blade Runner" and racism all thrown together, which is an awful thought.

I have now reached an age at which my greatest concern is my grandchildren and the society in which they will grow up. I want them to grow up in a society in which all the groups of our diverse population are at ease with themselves and one another. I want a society with an education system where every child is treasured; where every child learns to value diversity and to respect others; where children can understand the variety of contributions that they all make to our culture and welfare, and understand that they all share in both the potential and the frailty of the human condition. They will learn that best not just by studying the theory, but from day-to-day practical experience with their classmates in their classroom, which is why I have tabled my new clause.

4.15 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): We have just heard a sincere and passionate speech from the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) who, the House knows, holds strong views. But for all his sincerity and passion, he is wrong. He and his Liberal Democrat allies would make education in this country less diverse and worse if they had their way.

I shall turn to the detail of the new clause in a moment.

It is worth making the case for faith schools, which have suffered so much unfair denigration as the issue has been debated over the past few months. I should perhaps declare an interest, as I was educated at a Catholic primary school in Wales, in a small town which, as a port, saw a good deal of immigration, had very mixed communities and suffered absolutely no sign of racial or religious tension. I observed from my own experience that being educated at a Catholic school did not cut anyone off from the wider community.

The right hon. Gentleman made something of the problems in Northern Ireland—the terrible problems surrounding the Holy Cross school. I merely observe that they clearly stem from the wider tensions in Northern Ireland, and that in a normal society, religious schools are a normal part of life.

Apart from my own experience, my support for Church schools is based on the simple, pragmatic observation that the Church school is very often the good school. For many families, in our inner cities particularly, by far the best chance to obtain a top-class education for their children is the local Church school. The right hon. Gentleman may not have had time to read all of yesterday's report by Ofsted on the latest standards and quality of education, on which the Secretary of State made a statement yesterday.

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The right hon. Gentleman and the House should know that the Church schools whose ethos he seeks to destroy through new clause 1 performed outstandingly well, according to the chief inspector.

The report lists what it calls particularly successful schools. Of the 210 schools so identified, 82 are Church schools—more than a third. Given that roughly a quarter of schools are Church schools, the right hon. Gentleman will see that they score disproportionately well.

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