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Lynne Jones: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Estelle Morris: I shall first say why I believe the new clauses are wrong, then I shall give way to my hon. Friend and fellow Birmingham Member.

Hon. Members should be clear about what they are voting about this evening. New clauses 1 and 18 are roughly similar, as has been said. It is a matter of timing for new schools and old schools. Essentially, the new clauses would prevent schools admitting children according to the faith of the child or the parents. We have spoken at length about giving that power to the LEA and I do not intend to go over that again. Hon. Members will make up their own mind whether they think the local education authority is the right body to exercise that power. The new clause does not state


The authority would consult the forum, but would not be obliged to reach agreement with it. Indeed, the LEA could make the decision without the agreement of the admission forum or even the school organisation committee.

I have two other serious concerns about the new clause. First, every single hon. Member knows what an admissions round at primary school transfer is like. My advice bureaux are full of people who did not get their first choice and we all write a lot of letters about such matters. What could happen in the middle of the admissions round? A school that does not reach its quota of faith-based applicants cannot say merely that it will do so next time. It would have to go back to the LEA, which would then have to consult the admission forum. The LEA would have to make a decision for every single school. The matter would then go back to the school, which would have to re-do its admissions round. That would be a disaster.

The new clause would also extend the right for schools to admit by faith. At the moment, the only schools that can admit on that basis are voluntary aided. The new clause would give the local authority the right to authorise any maintained school, whether or not it is voluntary aided, to admit between 20 and 75 per cent. of pupils by faith. Whereas the right to admit by faith currently belongs to 7,000 voluntary aided schools, the new clause could make it belong to 24,000 maintained schools.

Mr. Dobson: My right hon. Friend may recall that when I introduced the new clauses, I said that it was quite possible that they were faulty—[Laughter.] They might be almost as faulty as the Bill, which requires 43 Government amendments on Report and will, no doubt, require an abundance of further amendments in the House of Lords. She should not try to foot-fault us, because she has the ability to do something next time there is a set or even a match.

Estelle Morris: I take my right hon. Friend's point, but it is very dangerous for politicians to table amendments and then say in the middle of the debate, "When you vote, don't for a minute think that you're voting on the amendment that is printed in black and white in front of you; we really didn't mean that, so please vote on something else." My affection for my right hon. Friend

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knows no bounds, but in terms of persuading people to take the risk that he proposes, I thought that he would want to get as many hon. Members as possible to vote for the new clause but in effect, he has just said, "Blimey, don't so many of you vote for it that it's passed, as it's not what I want to do."

Mr. Lansley: I should declare an interest, as both my eldest daughters attend a Church of England school. I am entirely with the Secretary of State in her arguments about wanting to leave those schools free to set their own admissions arrangements. Does she agree, however, that if we leave schools with that right, it is important that they exercise it openly and transparently? They should ensure not only that the arrangements are inclusive wherever possible, while meeting parental preferences, but that the appeals system for admissions, whose amendment we are considering, is independent, so that the admissions criteria for Church of England schools are not operated by a cosy club in ways that lack proper integrity.

Estelle Morris: There are schools in each of the sectors that do not operate their admissions policies as openly as they should. It is not the thrust of my argument to say that Church schools do everything well. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there are some that have an admissions policy that must be skewed—indeed, we have seen examples—to get the sort of intake that they achieve. I do not defend such practices, but I urge us not to judge the whole system on that basis.

Lynne Jones: I shall support the new clause, but I am interested in whether my right hon. Friend is willing to consider delegating the matters with which it deals to the local schools forums.

Estelle Morris: No. One of the arguments against the new clause is that it does not provide for local consultation and would give power to the local education authority without agreement. I do not want to accept the new clauses, and I would not accept them if they were amended to provide for delegation to local school forums.

5.45 pm

I want to explain my main reason for rejecting the new clauses. If they were accepted, we would stand less chance of attracting faith schools that are currently in the independent sector to the maintained sector. The number of pupils who are educated in faith schools in the independent sector has risen significantly in the past year. Paragraph 393 of the Ofsted report states:

Since 1997, the Labour Government have admitted 13 non-Christian schools to the maintained sector. All but four were transferred from the independent sector. Those four were two Jewish primary schools in Hertfordshire, a Jewish primary school in Redbridge and a Greek Orthodox school in Croydon. The Sikh schools and the Muslim schools were all transferred from the independent sector.

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I shall put my cards on the table. I want these schools to be in the maintained sector rather than the independent sector. I want them to be in the framework of accountability and their performance data to be placed in the public domain, as happens in the maintained sector. We do not all agree about that, but it is a strong argument. I also want faith schools to have to make available to their pupils the equal opportunities for boys and girls that schools in the maintained sector are obliged to provide. That is vital.

If we accept the new clause, I believe that an independent school that has to decide between remaining in the independent sector and being able to admit according to faith, on the one hand, and joining the maintained sector and running the risk of being instructed by an LEA that it can admit only 20 per cent. by faith—I accept that that is an extreme example—on the other, would remain in the independent sector. That would be a loss. Such a school would not close or cease to exist; its pupils would not transfer to multiracial, multicultural schools where, as if by fluke or magic, we have managed to get a good balance of colour, creed and race.

Forty per cent. more Muslim children attended independent schools this year because they had no choice. They wanted a faith-based education and they had to go to the independent sector because we had not made such provision in the maintained sector. It does not matter what I or any hon. Member thinks about what we would do for our children. In a multicultural age, when we show tolerance, I have no answer for a black constituent in Yardley, or someone in inner-city Nechells or Aston who asks, "How come if you're a Christian or a Jew you can exercise a right to voluntary aided, faith-based education, but if you're a Muslim or a Sikh, you can't?" If parents want faith-based schools, I want to make them available in the maintained sector. I therefore object to the new clauses in the name of tolerance, although, ironically, they were tabled in its name.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: I respect the sincere views of my right hon. Friend. She speculated about why people choose the independent sector and she suggested that they do that because the option of faith-based state schools is not available. However, many Muslim children who grow up in inner-city areas find that they are not allowed to attend the faith-based school—of whatever Book—that they wish to join because it does not admit anyone who is not, for example, Catholic or Church of England. That is an equally valid reason for choosing the independent sector.

Estelle Morris: That point has been made by a number of hon. Members; it is a truism. I am not sure whether the argument has been put forward today—I have certainly heard it in the many debates that I have had about faith-based schools—that it would be terrible to exclude a child because it had brown hair. Of course that is the case. Life is never quite as simple as that, though. In defending the right of a Church or a faith to admit by faith, as I do, I entirely accept that the reverse of that principle is that someone may not be admitted to the school next door to their house because they are of a different faith. I would be silly to argue that that was not so.

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Politics, like life, is always about weighing up someone's rights against someone else's freedoms. Those hon. Members who support new clause 1 have weighed up those rights and freedoms and come down on the side of giving the person living next to the Catholic school the right to go there, no matter what. I have come down on the side of giving the right to the Church to select by faith. I do not disparage the view of those hon. Members. I do not say that my view is better, but it is the view of the Government at the moment.

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