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This is a difficult issue and I hesitated before speaking as there are many shades to the argument. I always try to reach out to Labour Back Benchers, but I must make an admission that may not make me very popular with many of them. I am a middle-class resident of Westminster and Member of Parliament who sends his child across two boroughs to the London Oratory. I also send a child across another borough boundary
Mr. Leigh: In these debates, it is important to speak not only in the abstract but from personal experience. Speeches that I have heard in this Chamber over the years have been all the better for being spoken from personal experience. I am trying not to make a debating point but to share my personal experiences as a parent who cares passionately about the education of his children and who, because of the nature of his job, has to live in central London.
Most state schools in central London are simply unacceptable. That is the honest truth that we have to face. It is not a comfortable point of view, but one must be honest about this and middle-class parentsin fact, all parents in central Londonfight to get their children into Church schools. It is distressing to attend parents' meetings, as I have done at Our Lady of Victories, Lady Margaret's, which is a Church of England schoolI did not manage to get my daughter into that schooland the London Oratory, and to see literally hundreds of people of all types from all social classes who are desperate to get their children into the schools. We must ask ourselves why.
I have talked to many teachers and head teachers at those schools. A terrible burden is placed on them every year when they have to reject many excellent children. These are not just middle-class people trying to cheat the system but people from all social classes, and they have one thing in common: they want the best for their children. They are fighting to get them into the Church schools and they cannot. That is the problem.
Why are those Church schools so good? There is huge objective evidence to show that they are good. The Times Educational Supplement survey showed that one in four of the best schools in the country is a Church school. We know that they are over-subscribed, but they are good. They are so good because of their ethos, which is based on discipline, traditional standards and, yes, on religion. It is based on all those things that parents are so desperate for, so they fight to get their children into those schools.
The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is sincere about what he wants. As one parent to another I must tell him that the Catholic schools in central London, which are what I know about, are already hugely over-subscribed by Catholics. Many sincere, religious people cannot get their children into them. They are turned away, which is deeply upsetting. Their children have to go to secular schools or to schools
Mr. Leigh: Church primary schools in central London, or schools such as the London Oratory, cannot expand; physically, there is no room. They are hugely over- subscribed by people who share that faith.
It has been said that a lot of the parents with children at those schools are insincere. It is true that some people will deliberately go to Our Lady of Victories church, Kensington high street, Sunday after Sunday, although they are not very religious, and make themselves known to the priest because they know that that is how they get their children into a really good primary school. However, those hon. Members who support new clause 1 should accept that there are many sincere people who want a religious ethos for their children. They have a fundamental right of freedom of association. If they want to send their children to a school with a strong Catholic, Jewish or Church of England ethos, they should be allowed to do so.
Brian Cotter: I want to add to what the hon. Gentleman says and to correct it a little. It is not only middle-class families who look for schools with an ethos and discipline. I refer to a council estate in Weston- super-Mare where people are very disadvantaged. I was surprised, but they are determined to get their children into a school where prayers are said in the mornings. Lots of people, not just the middle class, seek the ethos and discipline that may be found in Church schools, but may also be found elsewhere.
Mr. Leigh: That is the point that I am trying to make. I should have thought that Labour Members would be especially anxious to have schools with a broad social mix and that they would want schools in central London and the inner cities to which people of all types want to send their children.
From my experience, schools such as Our Lady of Victories primary school have a complete social mix. There are people from the poorest families, immigrant families and many people on very low incomes, and people who have recently come to this country from Portugal, Spain, Latin America and all over Europe. There is a great mix of languages. The school is not based in a posh, suburban area. It is not based in the middle of Twickenham, which is a desirable area. I make no criticism of the constituency of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). It is in the middle of London, and it draws its children from every social class. Some of
Mr. Goodman: My hon. Friend is speaking in a personal and honest way. Does he agree that a large number of parents who do not believe in any particular religion want their children to be brought up in a context of absolute values? It would be wrong for any hon. Member to sneer at them as hypocrites for wanting that; they are entitled to our respect, as he says.
Mr. Leigh: My hon. Friend is right. There are genuinely religious people who want their children to go to religious schools. There are people who may not be religious but who want to send their children to schools were people believe in the absolute values to which my hon. Friend refers, and they should not be sneered at.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The hon. Gentleman seems directly to contradict the rest of his argument. If he is saying that there are people who do not have any particular religious beliefs but who desperately want their children to go to a faith school because of its ethos, the only way he can achieve that is by voting for new clause 1.
Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman has entirely misunderstood my argument. The reason why many Church schools in otherwise difficult areas are so over-subscribed is their religious ethos. Although many of the people who are trying to get their children into those schools may not be religious, they respect the ethos that has created them. The real danger of the new clause is that many schools in those difficult areas would start to lose that ethos. That may not happen in all cases, but it may happen in enough cases to make us pause and worry. One should not try to destroy the best. One must allow the best to continue, and try to bring others on behind them. I passionately believe in that.
We are perhaps not being honest with ourselves in this debate. There is no doubt that many Church of England schools and Catholic schools, which have been around for a long time, are inclusive. They are deeply embedded in the culture and history of our country and are not narrow-minded. People are tripping carefully around a subtext to this debate, because it is a highly sensitive issuethe problem of Muslim schools. People are not being entirely honest about that. I am happy with the thought of Muslim schools. However, those who want to set up Muslim schools must be as determined as those who run Jewish, Catholic and Church of England schools to be part of the wider community. Those who wish to set up Muslim schools must not force their children into a tiny, religiously based community in which they are cut off from people of other religions. I sincerely mean it when I say that that does not happen in Catholic schools.