Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: I am tempted to respond that size does not matter, but that might be regarded as frivolous. Smaller authorities have the power under the legislation to join a neighbouring, perhaps larger, authority to create an admission forum. If an authority decided that an admission forum of its own was not necessary or appropriate, it could join a neighbouring authority to create a larger forum that would be more serviceable and use resources more sensibly. I find it difficult to understand the hon. Gentleman's problem.

The Government carried out comprehensive, extensive consultation. Of those who responded, 78 per cent. thought that the proposal was eminently sensible and accorded with their experience of

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admissions over the years. What is contentious about legislating to introduce a structure that supports good co-ordination, better communication and will help to remove the significant stress and anxiety that parents and pupils too often experience in this country? Problems do not arise in every authority but they do in several. That is why we want to provide a structure to minimise, if not eliminate, the possibility of problems arising in the future. Surely we have a duty and responsibility to do so, particularly when the proposal enjoys widespread and consensual support among most of the relevant stakeholders in the education sector.

Mr. Turner: I am tempted to ask the Minister how many responses the 78 per cent. represents. He is now talking about the majority of stakeholders and I doubt whether 50 per cent. of all the parents, teachers, school governors and local education authorities in the country responded. The Minister is talking about a majority of a self-selecting group of respondents to a Government consultation exercise that was conducted with many other such exercises. As consultation exercises always do, it consisted of impenetrable papers and complicated jargon quite inaccessible to the majority of users of the education service.

I would like to know how many of my constituents responded to this exercise. The Minister has demonstrated his utter lack of knowledge of the education system in parts of the country. My local education authority does not have a neighbouring authority to which it would be convenient to join for creating an admissions forum. The Isles of Scilly may have a neighbouring authority even further away than mine, as it takes 45 minutes to travel to the mainland. It would be absurd to set up a joint Cornwall-Isles of Scilly forum, on which Cornwall would have an overwhelming preponderance of representation and the Isles of Scilly would be lucky to have one primary school governor in a corner. That would not represent the Isles of Scilly, but it would be equally absurd for the isles to set up its own admissions forums.

The Minister has provided no evidence of the need for such forums. The fact that local education authorities established so few admissions forums when they had the power to do so, demonstrates further that they had no desire to set them up at all. The Minister has not made a case for this proposal in any shape or form.

Mr. Lewis: I cannot promise, but I will attempt to provide the hon. Gentleman with a breakdown of responses to the consultation exercise or write to him to provide the information. If I displayed an astonishing lack of understanding of the world of education, it is not as bad as displaying an astonishing lack of knowledge of one's own constituency.

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of it, but the Isle of Wight specifically expressed an interest in establishing a joint forum with another education authority [Hon. Members: ''Ah''.] It is bizarre that while I am learning the trade, the hon. Gentleman remains blissfully unaware that his own constituency expressed interest in going down the road open to smaller education authorities, if they feel it is appropriate. The hon. Gentleman rubbished that as

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an option and implied that it was a nonsensical suggestion that would not work in most cases. Only this week—and perhaps the hon. Gentleman should make a couple of phone calls to confirm it—his local education authority expressed interest in forming a joint forum.

Mr. Turner: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lewis: No, the Minister will not.

It all reinforces the point that was made at the outset of our proceedings. The Government believe that it is appropriate to put the measure in legislation, because it will aid co-ordination and communication. The hon. Gentleman feels that that is not appropriate and wishes the voluntary arrangement, which LEAs can opt into, to remain. That is the difference between us. If the hon. Gentleman presses the amendment to a Division, we can all place our views on the record, but I ask him to withdraw it.

Mr. Turner: The Minister has offered some additional information, which I should be grateful to receive before the Report stage. [Interruption.] He promised me information about the number of representations made from my authority, which I should like to see. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 330, in page 29, line 19, at end insert 'including religious observance'.

I did not move amendment No. 331, but I am sure that the Minister would have been extremely disappointed if I had not moved amendment No. 330. This is a probing amendment, because it is important at this stage to ask the Minister to place on the record the Government's thinking, particularly about faith schools and the way in which admission arrangements will be organised in the light of their declared intention and the Minister's strong support for a significant expansion of faith schools.

I agreed when the Minister said in response to amendment No. 124 that admissions were an incredibly stressful issue for parents and children. I do not know whether you were a pupil in Burnley years ago, Mr. Pike—from your accent, I suspect that you were not—but those of us who were remember that time clearly. My brother went to Rose Grove secondary modern school, but I passed the 11-plus and went to Burnley grammar school. The huge divisions in our family and the community as a result of the awful day when the 11-plus results were announced at Rose Hill primary school are ingrained in my heart and memory. Other hon. Members will have similar recollections, so admissions problems are not new. At that time, there was a simple way of deciding who went to which school. Those who passed the 11-plus went to a particular school, and those who did not were allocated to another. Off my brother went to the secondary modern without a uniform or a bus, while I had my cap, badge, socks and all the rest.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Socks?

Mr. Willis: Yes, we had socks as well. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman does not remember the days when we

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were required to have our house colours on the top of our socks. In addition, we were not allowed to wear long trousers until we went into the sixth form, and as I was 6 ft 2 at the age of 13, that was something of a problem. [Interruption.] We were allowed to wear short trousers; we did not go to school in just our underpants. In fact, we were so poor that we could not afford underpants.

Admissions forums are not new, and it was rather disappointing that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) did not—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I hope that hon. Members with mobile phones or other audible devices will put them on vibrate mode while they are in Committee.

Mr. Willis: I am sorry that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight did not press his amendment. Although there were some positive responses to the consultation on admissions forums, they were by no means overwhelming, as I am sure the Minister will agree. Many of us feel that forcing local authorities to accept a particular form of organisation is unacceptable. They are perfectly capable of organising admissions, as they have done for decades, in a modern way that is compatible with Government thinking. However, the clause provides for admission forums.

10 am

The job of the forums will change as a result of the powers to innovate. The Minister has failed to take one factor fully into account. If significant changes are made to the way in which schools innovate and a plethora of new specialist schools exercise their 10 per cent. right to select by aptitude—technically speaking, half the schools in Britain could do so by 2005—so we have an acceleration of voluntarily aided, single faith schools with their own admission arrangements, we will have a different situation from the one for which the Minister is legislating in the Bill. The job of the forums would become incredibly complicated. It is important, therefore, that we give them and local authorities as much flexibility as possible in deciding the overall framework for admissions. That is partly the reasoning for the amendment.

I congratulate the Minister on the school admissions regulations for the admission forums. They were very helpful and answered many of the questions on which I was lobbied when the Bill was published. I have one question, which is that if a school, at the request of its governors, were taken over by a private sector company, would members of that company's board be allowed on the admission forum in the category of

    ''other persons, not being members of the LEA but who appear to the core members to represent the interests of any section of the local community''?

That is an important issue and I should like the Minister to respond to it.

Page 2 of the proposals details the

    ''Issues for forums to consider and advise on'',

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and provides an extremely helpful list. Throughout, it says that schools are part of broader communities, not just entities in their own right. The list includes

    ''how well existing and proposed admission arrangements serve the interests of local children and parents; reaching local agreement on new or controversial issues; the comprehensiveness and accessibility of the LEA's admissions literature and information for parents; local co-ordinated arrangements'',

and all point rightly to the fact that the forum and the LEA must take wider issues into consideration when developing an admissions policy. It is helpful that the Government have made that clear.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the creation of more single faith schools could have a serious impact on other schools' admissions. One does not have to be a genius to work out that in an authority like mine, where there are six high quality comprehensive schools, of which two are church schools, the creation of another church school would have a significant impact on the schools that are not single faith. That is stating the obvious; it is not rocket science to work that out. I am arguing that the admission forums and local authority should be able to consider grounds of religion in deciding the admissions policy.

Although you are slightly older than me, Mr. Pike, we are both of an age to know that faith schools have been around a long time. Following the Education Act 1870, there was an attempt to fill the gaps in primary education that were left by the National Society, which provided Anglican schools, and the British and Foreign School Society, which provided non-conformist schools. It was not until Butler's Education Act 1944 that we saw the present arrangements for funding secondary schools and school transport. Those who take a keen interest in the issue—as many Committee members do—will know that most of the school transport arrangements arose from the 1944 Act.

Since then, there has been a general concordat that in return for funding and transport, there would be no expansion of faith schools, particularly at secondary level. That worked extremely well until the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which let the genie out of the bottle. It made it clear that other faiths could receive state funding for the establishment of schools in the same way as other voluntary-aided schools from the Church of England, Roman Catholic Church and the Methodists. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) had little option at the time, and Liberal Democrat policy supported him. It was illiberal to say that Anglicans could have schools but Muslims could not. I accept that point.

We have had some arguments about this, so I want to make it clear to the Minister that, like him, I speak from the basis of having a strong faith that has been an important part of how I conduct my life and business since I discovered it during my work in Chapeltown many years ago. I have no objection in principle to faith schools, and our policy is not to dismantle them and create a secular system. The amendment is aimed at trying to convince the Government that we cannot have an unbridled expansion of faith schools without

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considering its impact. We must ensure that admission arrangements protect the broader community from segregation, of which we have seen the worst effects in Northern Ireland, parts of the United States and other countries where there is a sharp division in schools in religion and race.

Had the Government not made comments about wanting to extend the number of faith schools and encouraged the Church of England in its quest to establish another 100 secondary schools, we would not be having this debate. Everyone got along fairly well together, and there was no great demand from the Muslim community for single faith schools. The Minister can tell us how many have been created since 1998, but I believe that it is only three, so we are not talking about huge numbers. However, Lord Dearing's report, ''The Way Ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium'' clearly showed that the Church of England wanted to create another 100 schools to fill the gaps and to be on a par with Roman Catholic secondary school provision. An argument in favour of that was that the Church of England has a significant number of primary schools. That is historic. The Church of England has generally provided primary education in villages throughout the country successfully and harmoniously. To be fair, the Roman Catholics have done the same, and there is no great problem with that. The issues arise at secondary level.

The problem has arisen through encouragement by the Prime Minister, who has been clear about his own faith and his belief in church schools. The Minister has also made his views clear. The Government's position was clear in the Green Paper and in the White Paper, and we have also had the Government's unilateral decision to reduce the capital requirement of faith schools from 15 per cent. to 10 per cent. without any debate in the House of Commons. That was a major decision that affected the capital requirements of schools and directly affected local authorities, but there was no debate about it. The decision was taken by the Department for Education and Skills to further a policy that has appeared by stealth over the past two years.

The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister have stated openly that the basis for the Government's policy is their belief that church schools do better than other schools. I flatly refute that argument. There is only slim evidence that that is the case. The research paper that was produced for the Bill shows that examination results of five A to Cs are better in Church of England schools, and I accept that logic.

However, one must consider the make-up of Church of England secondary schools and the number of free school meals in those schools. It is a pity that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales is not here today, because the National Assembly has done some excellent research that shows that when the other factors are taken into account, church schools do not do significantly better than other schools.

It is clear that church schools do well because they have superb head teachers. There are two such schools in my constituency—St. Aidans and St. John Fisher—

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which the Minister has visited. I regard Dennis Richards at St. Aidans as the best head teacher with whom I have ever had the pleasure to work. The school also has a largely committed parent body that supports the youngsters. If the catchment area is broadly middle class, the leadership is excellent and the parents are supportive, the school will be successful, because those are the ingredients for success. I defy the Minister to say anything different.

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