Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike. It is a pleasure to see you, although I hope that we have not worn out two Chairmen already. I am sure that we have not, because they are such estimable Chairmen.

We have had a wide-ranging debate on the amendment, so I intend to be brief. Initially, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough went very wide by recalling the old debate about grammar schools and secondary moderns. He took us right back to the 1950s or perhaps even earlier.

Mr. Turner: The 1870s.

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Mr. Brady: Indeed. Apparently, the hon. Gentleman's good fortune was to go to school wearing socks, while his brother was forced to go to school sockless. I cannot help observing that had his parents had his egalitarian zeal, they would have given

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each child one sock, which would have been a fairer outcome, but enough of that.

I am sure that we shall return to the question of faith schools later in our proceedings and perhaps later in the Bill's progress, but it is important to comment briefly now on the official Opposition's position. We support, and have always supported, the freedom of parents to have the maximum choice in the schools that are available to them.

I have not checked the Hansard record of the Committee that considered the School Standards and Framework Bill in 1998, but I recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and I tabled an amendment that was designed to facilitate schools of whatever faith community becoming part of the maintained sector. I cannot recall whether the amendment was selected, but we have always been clear, as has been said, that it would be wrong to allow Church of England, Roman Catholic and Jewish schools, but not Muslim or other faith schools.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough seems to have reached the position, which I am not sure is tenable, that faith schools are acceptable and perhaps even a good thing as long as they have no faith requirement or overly religious content.

Mr. Willis: I never said that.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman's position is clear. He does not feel that it is acceptable for schools to specify the pupils whom they admit on grounds of faith, but it is difficult to see how a Church of England school with no Anglican children could function as a faith school in a meaningful sense.

I think that the Minister for School Standards is in a different part of this territory. In an intervention on the hon. Gentleman, he said that underlying the strong parental involvement in and support for schools in Harrogate and Knaresborough was the near 100 per cent. faith involvement in those schools.

The Conservative party's position is that schools must largely have control of their admissions policies. It would be dangerous to suggest that faith schools be prohibited from selecting their intake on the basis, partly at least, of pupils' faith.

Dr. Kumar: The hon. Gentleman's party supports faith schools, and he says that it is important to have people of the relevant faith in those schools. Does he believe in religious education or religious instruction in those schools? There is a wide gap between the two, and the answer to that question will determine his party's position.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The issue may go even wider than that to the ethos of the school, what we have a right to expect a maintained school to teach and how we would expect such a school to educate pupils in the broadest sense. Apart from the national curriculum requirements, which might be suspended for some schools, according to earlier discussions in the Committee it is legitimate to impose equality of treatment for boys and girls and other requirements and expectations. It is proper that faith schools should

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be able to instruct in their faith and maintain the religious ethos of the school.

We each have the perspective of our own experience. There are Church of England and Roman Catholic primary schools and three Roman Catholic secondary schools in my constituency. The environment in which they operate gives the lie to anyone who makes the superficial argument that faith schools per se cause social or religious divisions within a community. Clearly, they do not. The Blessed Thomas Holford school, an extremely good Roman Catholic high school in Altrincham, has been in the maintained sector for a long time. My constituency also has two Roman Catholic grammar schools, St. Ambrose college and Loreto convent school. As a brief aside, that school was an independent school maintained by charitable trusts. It was so attracted by grant-maintained status that it opted in to the maintained sector. That is a good illustration of the attractiveness of the former grant-maintained regime.

The diversity of provision works well in the interests of local parents who can make a choice about the schooling of their children on the basis of religion, as well as other aspects.

Dr. Kumar: The hon. Gentleman mentioned diversity. On the principle of diversity, would his party support a Muslim faith school that decided that the girls should wear the hijab?

Mr. Brady: I made it clear in my earlier comments that there are expectations which may appropriately be placed on maintained schools regarding, for example, equality of treatment for boys and girls. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of a case regarding the wearing of school uniforms at the Secretary of State's former school. Such an issue is difficult and must be handled with sensitivity. The school handled it sensibly, and came to a reasonable settlement that maintained the ethos of the school. It was not a Muslim school.

Dr. Kumar: So the hon. Gentleman believes in limited diversity, and that the demands of faith schools should be limited.

Mr. Brady: Inevitably, we must consider trade-offs when we discuss maintained schools and taxpayers' money. It is proper and reasonable for the state to have a view about what is acceptable in such schools. I do not advocate maintained schools of any religion or sect behaving in whatever way they see fit, without any regulation. However, it is crucial to consider why faith and church schools work well. Anglican, Roman Catholic and Jewish schools have worked well for many years. On principle, it would be wrong to deny such forms of education to those of other faiths, and I hope that all members of the Committee take that view.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I do not know whether my hon. Friend shares my experience of faith schools. Church of England schools tend to be better at supporting, encouraging and educating pupils of all religious backgrounds in the full range of religious beliefs, knowledge and understanding. In recognising

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and being sympathetic to the various cultural dimensions of children of other religions, pupils develop a greater sensitivity towards other faiths in faith schools than in many non-faith schools.

The Chairman: Order. Can we try to keep a bit closer to the amendment before us? I know that they are important issues.

Mr. Brady: These are important and far-reaching issues, but I shall certainly try to keep closer to the amendment. I have been led down various paths. I shall try to resist the blandishments of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

Crucially, there is a question mark over the genesis—if that is not an inappropriate term—of the Government's policy. I fear that the Government hit upon the idea of an expansion of faith schools based on the broad statistical fact that church schools tend to perform better than the generality of schools. They then fell into the trap of believing that church schools will be good schools, and that if more church schools are created the quality of education as a whole will rise. I caution Ministers not to believe that that is necessarily the case. Parents want good schools: that underlies the debate and the demand that the Under-Secretary flagged up. There is a dearth of good schools in many areas. If parents know of a good church school nearby, they will want to send their children to it or to one like it. There is a danger that the Government see the success of existing church schools as an easy route to raising standards overall.

I said at the outset that I did not want to speak at length. We will deal with this issue on later amendments in more detail. It is an extremely important debate. I hope that I have made it clear that the Government's policy of allowing an expansion of faith schools where there is demand—

Mr. Willis: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brady: I gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Willis: I realise that the hon. Gentleman is coming to the end of his remarks. He is not addressing the fundamental part of the amendment. Does the Conservative party believe that school admissions policies should be able deliberately to exclude all children in those communities, other than those of a single faith?

Mr. Brady: I probably responded to the amendment very much in the spirit that the hon. Gentleman proposed it. We may have wandered from the particular words on the amendment paper. His last comment bears little relation to the substance of his amendment. Certainly, church schools and faith schools should be able to take faith issues into account in their admissions policies.

Mr. Willis: One hundred per cent.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman is trying to lead me where I do not want to go. We should stress the essentially liberal point that, if parents want a particular religious context for the education of their children, they should be able to have that whenever possible. It is worrying that the Liberal Democrat position now appears to be that faith should not be

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taken into account in the admissions process of existing faith schools as well as new faith schools. That is regrettable. I support the Government's thinking, in so far as it enhances parental choice, but I give a strong warning that Ministers must not fall into the trap of regarding an expansion of faith schools as a shortcut or an easy route to raising school standards overall.

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