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Glenda Jackson: The hon. Gentleman was arguing that the strength of the established religious schools would disappear if the new clause were passed and a mere 20 per cent. of non-religious children or children of different religions entered them. He is now arguing entirely the opposite case with regard to the possible creation of Muslim schoolsthat they cannot be exclusive with regard to children who do not share their religion.
Mr. Leigh: I was not saying that at all. If someone wants to set up a school with 100 per cent. Muslim pupils, that is a fundamental right of freedom of association. We should not deny people that right just because they want to be in the maintained sector. People have a right to set up schools with an ethos in which they believethere should be a range of schools in the maintained sector as in the independent sectorand we should not deny Muslims such a right. I am simply trying to make the point that, when such schools are set upI have no doubt that they will bethey should be aware of the vital importance, despite being 100 per cent. Muslim, of integrating with the rest of the community. That is a point with which I hope nobody in the House should disagree.
Mr. Leigh: I am trying to deal with this point seriously and be fair to all sides. Personally, I have had a worry about Muslim schools for many years, for the reasons that I have been talking about. On the one hand, people have the right to have schoolsfreedom of association is a fundamental rightbut can we be absolutely sure, once the school has been set up, that it will ensure that its pupils are aware of the history of the nation and of the wider community? We have been assured in this debate that times have moved on, that we have a mature democracy, and that people who want to create such schools will do precisely that. I am happy with that. I am simply saying that we should leave the schools that we have alone. Do not mess them around or impose quotas on them. Let parents and teachers get on with running the schools that they want. However, once we have those schools, let us ensure that they are aware of their wider responsibilities.
I support the amendments but in the full knowledge that the subject is complex. The passionate debate and the heated views of hon. Members on both sides of the House has demonstrated that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) have done the House and the country a service by confronting the issue. It is not merely about the technicality of school admissions policies, but about the
Like many hon. Members, I am religiously neutral. I was brought up in a Methodist family and married a Catholic. I have been an atheist and I am probably now a humanist. Who knows where I will be in 10 years' time? I am not sure whether that is a confession or a declaration of interest, but hon. Members have started from their personal point of view.
Although I am religiously neutral, I will defend to the last the right of people who hold religious views to express them and bring their children up within that philosophy. Religion plays no significant part in my life, but I recognise its overwhelming significance in our cultural history. That is why I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) when he defined the liberal society as one in which people can tolerate the views of those they find intolerant.
Mr. Challen: Opposition Members said that many Labour Members hate religion. Perhaps they think that those who support the new clause are atheists. Will my hon. Friend accept my assurance that it is possible to be an atheist and to admire religion? It is even possible to be an atheist and to study it, as I chose to do when I went to university.
I want to deal with the arguments against the amendments. Some hon. Members have accused them of disparaging all religion. That is manifestly not true. Others have criticised them for wanting to put an end to religious schools or to block the development of more religious schools. That is obviously not true. Some people laid the blame on religious schools for the riots in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford. Clearly there is a relationship, but it is not entirely causal. We need to sweep away the social and cultural issues that have come into the argument and concentrate on education.
I declare an interest because of the many religious schools in my constituency. There is a private Muslim school, a state Anglican school, a state Catholic school and many Church of England and Catholic primary schools, and one of the Church of England primary schools has an overwhelming majority of Muslim pupils. There is thus a diversity of experience in my constituency. I pay tribute to the leadership and the teachers of all those schools. Some of them perform extremely well and are hugely popular with parents; others have serious difficulties.
The pattern of achievement in religious schools is hugely varied, especially in primary schools. In the secondary sector, the GCSE A to C point score may well be slightly higher overall for religious schools, but we cannot give any credence to the significance of the GCSE point score of any school without also looking at the proportion of children with statements and of children on free school meals that the school takes. In the secondary
My support for new clause 1 is based on the educational impact of existing Church schools. I take very much to heart the comments of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I accept that in some parts of the country there is tremendous pressure to get into religious schools, because many parents deem the alternative unacceptable. I sympathise with parents in that predicament, but the point is that that in itself cannot be allowed to continue. It is almost as if the hon. Gentleman and others support the status quo as somehow acceptable. The overwhelming majority of Labour Members do not find the current structure acceptable, because the privileges of the minority are obtained to the disadvantage of the majority. The structures must change.
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): The hon. Gentleman reminds me of my own experience. I went to a Church of England cathedral school, which had a very diverse pupil populationthere were pupils from all social groups. Obviously, it was predominantly Christian, but there were Jewish and Catholic pupils. It was a great grammar school and had a tremendous ethosit still does. Unfortunately, it was forced to go private because it was so concerned to maintain its ethos and not have it watered down. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is not a case of the privileges of the minority being won at the expense of the majority, but of opportunities being closed off, and that there could be many circumstances in which the consequence would be the same? Now one can go to that school only if one has the money to do so.
Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman is opening up an argument that is probably more relevant to the next but one set of amendments, which deals specifically with selection. I do not want at this stage to go into the history or ending of direct grant grammar schools; suffice it to say that if the hon. Gentleman is arguing that there was a loss of educational opportunity for the majority when direct grant grammar schools and other schools such as cathedral schools went private in the 1970s, I ask him to consider the levels of achievement of children between 1970 and 2000. He will find that, as the system of comprehensive education has developed year on year, so the levels of achievement have increased. That could not have happened in the days when cathedral or direct grant grammar schools were in the state system.
I want to move the argument on. I cannot accept the view of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) that the freedom to choose for one set of parents is quite separate from the loss of choice of another set of parents. The importance of freedom of choice is paramount to the extent that it does not impinge on the denial of somebody else's freedom of choice. That to me is the heart of the issue. On any analysis of the structure of secondary educationit is important that we draw the distinction between the operation of faith schools in the primary and secondary sectorsthe crux of the matter is that one persons' freedom of choice is another person's denial of choice. The existing structure of faith schools is the central cog in that mechanism. Those are my objections.
There are issues concerning selection, admissions policy, dubious practices and lack of transparency in the way certain faith schools recruit their pupils. There are questions about the role of parents and whether pupils are admitted because of their parents rather than their inherent aptitude, ability, suitability or character. We could spend a lot of time discussing all that, but it would be a distraction.