Lords amendments considered.
General duties of governing body of maintained schools
Lords amendment: No. 30.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
I shall deal first with amendments Nos. 30, 31 and 32, which introduce a new duty on governing bodies of maintained schools to promote the well-being of pupils as defined in section 10 of the Children Act 2004. When the House first considered the matter, we argued that the duty was unnecessary because powerful levers were already in place.
Ofsted already inspects schools using a framework that requires consideration of the school’s contribution to delivering the five “Every Child Matters” outcomes, and school improvement partners will support and challenge schools on promoting pupils’ well-being. However, we have been persuaded that there is genuine value in sending a message to teachers and other professionals who work with children that raising educational standards and improving pupils’ well-being are mutually reinforcing. Accepting the amendments and stating unambiguously in primary legislation that school governing bodies have a clear duty to promote well-being will contribute to both aims.
Paragraph (b) of amendment No. 30 would place a duty on the governing bodies of maintained schools to promote community cohesion. Amendment No. 62 links to that duty and would require Ofsted to report on community cohesion as part of routine school inspection. Hon. Members know that faith schools and their admissions arrangements have attracted considerable public and media interest.
I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to the concerns of Members of Parliament of all parties and those of the Catholic Church. I am sure that he agrees that Catholic schools generate a great deal of social cohesion, especially in my part of south London. In my discussions with members of local congregations at the weekend, they wished to extend their thanks to him for listening.
The term does not include academies in that the arrangements that apply to maintained schools do not apply to academies, but it includes academies in that the amendment will be introduced as part of their funding agreements. Many other amendments will also apply to academies but in a different way.
There has been considerable media interest inand several misplaced accusations about and misinterpretations of our intentions and our decision not to proceed with an amendment on admissions to new faith schools. Perhaps I can set the record straight.
On 3 October, the Church of England announced its decision to offer places in its new schools to children in the local community in addition to those made available for Anglican children. We welcomed that. Our position was that, if sufficient consensus existed, we would be prepared to introduce a local authority power for admissions to other new faith schools. I emphasise that it was a power, not a duty. We undertook to consult the key representatives of the faith communities before deciding our way forward. Having done that and having listened to the concerns of all the faith groups and many colleagues in all parties, but especially Labour Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), and after agreeing with the Archbishop of Birmingham that a voluntary way forward to ensure up to 25 per cent. of places in new Catholic schools for pupils from other faiths or no faith, additional to the demand from Catholic pupils, we decided that it would be wrong to press ahead with our amendment.
It became clear from our discussions with faith groups that there was no consensus in support of the amendment. Not only the Catholic Church, but the Sikh community, the Hindu community, the Church of England—although it agreed a voluntary route—and the Muslim community believed that it was unnecessary to legislate. All the faith communities did not support the amendment, but they were all in favour of the far more important and profound proposition to place a duty to promote community cohesion on the governing bodies of all maintained—faith and non-faith—schools and to ask Ofsted to inspect and report on schools’ response to that obligation.
I am also pleased that the Secretary of State has rowed back from his position of compulsion. All church schools in my constituency already take more than 25 per cent. of pupils who are not of their faith. None the less, will my right hon. Friend reassure hon. Members that, under the voluntary arrangements, pupils who choose to go to a faith school can still withdraw from religious education in that school?
Yes. One of the amendments that we shall discuss later would allow pupils who reach the sixth form to decide to withdraw from religious education. Currently, the decision is up to parents. That amendment is in a different group, but it is an important step forward.
I do not think so. I appreciate that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in those matters, but I emphasise that the most progressive move was another voluntary agreement. When discussing amendments, we must consider what we can achieve through legislation and what we can achieve much more successfully through voluntary agreements. All faiths agreed in March that they would ensure that every religion is taught as part of religious instruction in schools. That was an enormous step forward and an advance for community cohesion.
The consensus meant that we could support the amendment that Lord Sutherland of Houndwood tabled.
The Secretary of State has been generous in giving way. What does promotion of community cohesion mean in practice? Will the Ofsted inspectors look for evidence in admissions that schools have promoted community cohesion by letting pupils from other faiths in? Will promoting community cohesion be measured through links that they develop with other schools? What weight will the concept carry in the overall Ofsted inspection?
That is an important point. No, that will not apply to admissions. I will come on to say what it will apply to. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the question of what the term “community cohesion” means. It has a definition in Home Office legislation and we introduced it in this Bill in clause 33(6), which relates to foundation schools
The amendments reflect the great importance that should be attached to promoting and developing community cohesion—not just for new schools or faith schools, but for all our schools, regardless of their admission arrangements. By community cohesion, we mean working towards a society in which there is a common vision and sense of belonging by all communities; a society in which the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued; a society in which similar life opportunities are available to all; and a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community.
Schools have a vital role to play, both in providing for the education and development of their pupils, and in working in partnership with others towards those objectives. Let me make it clear to the House that many schools are doing that now. Faith schools twin with neighbouring community schools, where pupils come from different backgrounds, to share assemblies, playtime, PE, drama and creative activities, and parents meet at coffee mornings. Inter-faith groups work with schools and local authorities to develop models for supporting community cohesion by encouraging different faith leaders to visit schools. There are many more examples of good work.
The new duty on Ofsted explicitly to cover schools’ contributions to community cohesion will ensure accountability in respect of the new duty on schools. We should bear it in mind that the mover of the amendment in the other place, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, was a former chief inspector of schools and set up the Ofsted model, so we have some experience. We have full endorsement from Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, Christine Gilbert, on both the new duty on schools and the new role for Ofsted in monitoring it.
Ofsted already reports on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, assesses personal development and well-being and evaluates learners’ contribution to the community. In doing so, it already picks up on many aspects of schools’ work that contribute to community cohesion. However, an explicit reference in legislation will ensure that all schools will be held to account for their contribution. I have no doubt that Ofsted’s new focus will highlight the excellent work that is already taking place in many of our schools through creative and innovative approaches to, among other things, the curriculum, personal development, out-of-classroom learning and partnership working.
Where there is more to be done, inspection will identify areas for improvement and make recommendations, in the light of which schools will be expected to take appropriate action. They will need to reflect the progress made on those actions in updating the self-evaluation form. The school improvement partners will challenge and support them in making any necessary improvements. Schools will need to inform parents about that progress through the school profile.
We believe that the new duties on schools and Ofsted provide the right way forward and a consensual way forward, both enhancing the education of pupils and preparing them to play a positive role in a more cohesive society. I commend the amendments to the House.
I was taken by surprise by the speed with which the Secretary of State came to his conclusion. I hope that he will intervene on me, because there is one point that I wish to clarify. We welcome the Lords amendments and have reached the same conclusion as the Secretary of State: they are a sensible approach to the role that schools, and particularly faith schools, can play in the promotion of community cohesion. We should pay tribute to the efforts of Lord Alton, who put an enormous amount of work into ensuring that this consensus was created, Baroness Buscombe, Lord Ahmed, Lord Sutherland and Lord Adonis, who also contributed to the creation of this consensus. Consensus has been the hallmark of the Bill. The Bill has reached this stage because the Opposition have been willing to support the Government on it. We would have liked it to be bolder, but we see that it is a step in the right direction and we welcome it. Today may see the final stages of its progress through both Houses of Parliament.
We welcome the amendments because they clearly place the emphasis on the social responsibility of schools to promote cohesion. That is far better than a rigid, nationally imposed and legally enforceable quota system for new faith schools. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition last month praised the Church of England’s decision to offer at least 25 per cent. of places to children with no requirement that they be from families of practising members of the Church of England. We praised that as an example of social responsibility by an individual faith group, not as something that should lead to nationwide legislative requirements on other faith groups to do the same. The Anglican Church has gone out of its way to make it clear that, although that was its initiative, it did not necessary expect other faith groups to follow in exactly that same way. Those are matters for individual faith groups, not the state.
I know from the exchange of letters that the Secretary of State has heard from Archbishop Nichols. I had a useful conversation with him in which he made absolutely clear the position of the Catholic Church, which is eloquent on the role that Catholic churches can play in the local community. We welcome this alternative approach based on inspection by Ofsted. Schools that fail to promote community cohesion will be identified and expected to take appropriate action.
I had hoped to hear a bit more from the Secretary of State on the exact role of admissions codes—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) raised. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State were able to tell us at the Dispatch Box today whether, as Lord Adonis suggested in the other place, there will be any changes in admissions codes. The Secretary of State will know that there has been some concern about possible changes to the admissions code. If he envisages any such changes, it would be helpfulif he could state authoritatively as part of our exchanges exactly what they might be and what their effect would be.
We also welcome the fact that the duty applies to all schools, not just faith schools, because that recognises that faith is only one of a variety of factors that we need to take into account. One argument that has impressed me, as I am sure that it has impressed Members on both sides of the House, is that faith schools can often achieve high levels of social and ethnic mix. The Catholic Church has made the point to us that, if anything, its schools achieve higher levels of ethnic and social mix than some of the secular schools in the area. That important point needs to be taken into account.
The Secretary of State referred to the conversations that he had with representatives of the Muslim community. Does he agree that one of the big prizes is to attract more Muslim schools into the maintained sector? It would be welcome if those Muslim schools that are outside the maintained sector could preserve their ethos, but at the same time benefit fromthe breadth of the national curriculum and some of the other obligations that follow from being in the maintained sector. It would be interesting to hear from the Secretary of State about that. I had hoped that he would say more about how the Government were approaching what we understand to be negotiations with more than 100 independent Muslim schools, what he thinks might be the prospects for those negotiations, and the terms on which the schools should enterthe maintained sector. I hope that that would not include, however, any suggestion of different Ofsted arrangements for maintained schools for the Muslim community.
The record of most maintained faith schools is very impressive. They are producing results that are, on average, several percentage points higher than those of non-faith schools, both at primary and secondary level. Many of those schools are beacons of excellence in their communities. Above all, they are schools that many parents want their children to attend.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the higher level of achievement of maintained faith schools. Does he accept that they will put forward only those students whom they believe will achieve good grades, so this is not exactly a level playing field?
That is something that faith schools and schools with no particular faith identity have been known to do. I would not like to suggest that the problem affects only faith schools, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not imply that, as that would be unfair on them.
Parents choose these schools and, above all, we value parental choice and respect the view of parents. That is our fundamental reason for supporting the Bill—it takes a modest step towards greater diversity in education and, therefore, towards more real choice for parents. Nothing in the amendment in any way jeopardises parents who choose a faith school for their children, and on that basis we are very happy to support the consensus that emerged in the other place.
I welcome the compromise that has broken out in this Chamber and in the other place. I wish that we had not gone along the route of trying to come up with a quota. It was always fraught with problems, and some of us learned a lesson. I have always argued that faith schools should look to include people from other dispositions inasmuch as that is the basis of their faith. They should be willing to engage and they certainly should be willing to accept into their establishment those who have different beliefs.
However, it behoves those parents and children who choose a faith school to engage with that faith. I am worried that because of the route that this debate has taken those who choose a faith school will be able to exclude themselves from all engagement. It seems bizarre that someone would argue that they should go to a Catholic school, a Protestant school or a Muslim school, only to exclude themselves from any lesson in which education about that faith or any other faith came into play.
I look to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to clarify the point that we expect those children whose parents choose to send them to a particular school to be able to engage as we want them to, so that wehave an educative process. I hope that that point is understood. It comes into play in the admissions process. Parents should take responsibility when they have a choice of schools and decide that they want their child to go to a particular type of school.
I wanted to speak about these amendments because I have been involved in the promotion of children’s well-being since the passage of the Children Bill, to which I tabled amendments. I am pleased that we now accept that the promotion of pupils’ well-being should be a duty on the governing body of a school.
There is consensus on the amendments, but is the hon. Lady at all concerned that requirements for schools to do more and more things, particularly those that have traditionally been seen as the responsibility of parents, will create problems for teachers? They already have to abide by the national curriculum, provide sex education and promote community cohesion. Is she worried about the salami-slicer effect of imposing more and more duties on schools on top of the academic responsibilities that they already have? Should not these matters occasionally be left to parents?
I suppose that, as a matter of courtesy, I should thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention—not that I found it particularly helpful.
If we think back to the “Every Child Matters” agenda and the fact that we are all concerned about the development of the whole child, it is not too difficult to take on board the fact that if a child is suffering, being bullied or engaging in activities that are not in their best interests, they will not perform well academically. It is impossible to think of a child simply as somebody to be fed information by teachers so that they will go on, at the other end of the machine, to produce good scores. It is much more complex than that and we have to be concerned about the whole child and their development.
I am pleased, therefore, that promotion of well-being has entered the frame, but I would like the Secretary of State to expand on one aspect. When moving a similar amendment in the past, I included the provision that there should be co-operation with the children’s services authority covering the school’s area. Will the Secretary of State clarify how that would work? If there is a matter of concern, such as a teenage pregnancy, work must be done with the children’s services authority.
Work on social cohesion has to be welcome. We see the concept as being much wider than bringing faiths together. Obviously, that is an important aspect, but it is vital that we consider cohesion in the context of the whole community. The Liberal Democrats have decided that we will not get into a discussion about quotas because many self-inflicted difficulties have been created by that discussion. While there is, for the time being, a way forward that embraces points made in Committee by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), which we discussed at great length, then we should consider the concept of social cohesion in those terms.
It is vital for a school to be at the heart of its community. It should be open and welcoming and there should many activities in the school that engage all aspects of the local community. For some areas, the school will be all that is left to promote the idea of community. Both urban and rural areas are losing facilities such as post offices and pubs, so the school has an important role to play. In some areas, a number of schools will serve the whole community and there will be a need for collaboration. The Secretary of State gave an example of that. Will Ofsted be inspecting the degree of collaboration between schools? If we simply have individual schools promoting social cohesion as they see it, without collaboration, we cannot achieve the objective that the House wants.
I also wonder about the role of the local authority in this matter. When a number of individual schools are serving the community, the local authority also has to be in the circle, promoting collaboration. Will the local authority be inspected on the degree to which it promotes collaboration and social cohesion?
A few questions remain, but as things stand I would not have thought that anyone could argue against the promotion of well-being and community cohesion.
There are two questions arising from the amendments on which I seek assurances and answers from the Secretary of State. The first relates to my intervention to ask whether a parent sending a child to a faith school under the 25 per cent. voluntary agreement would be able to say, straight-faced, “I want to withdraw my child from the religious elements of the education.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) believes that if parents have chosen to send their children to a faith school, it would be wrong to withdraw the children from religious lessons. However, parents do not necessarily have a choice. Often, the only neighbourhood schools, especially at primary level, are faith schools. If parents want their child to travel only a short distance to school, they have to send the child to a faith school. The alternative is to subject the child to a much longer journey each day, which we believe is undesirable. There is not always a choice, so the Secretary of State has to explain what guidance he will offer schools on determining their policies in respect of non-believers at a school where religious lessons are the norm.
The second question is how on earth do we inspect for community cohesion? Which model of cohesion do we think is the right one? Will inspectors be inspected to find out whether they have a proper understanding of what is meant by community cohesion? There is an ongoing and important debate in which some say that they are not sure that the celebration of different identities and views is the correct model for British society in the 21st century—they argue that we should be urging a far greater degree of homogeneity of understanding, reference points and signposts to bring people together. How can I know whether an Ofsted inspector is knowledgeable and has a coherent view? Will the Government state what they mean by their model of community cohesion?
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman’s comments on community cohesion. Does he agree that, for some people, the promotion of multiculturalism is the guiding light in the promotion of community cohesion, whereas for many others—certainly for me—the promotion of integration is more likely to increase community cohesion? Does he agree that those points must be clarified, lest we end up with political correctness being promoted in our schools as an inadvertent consequence of the amendment?
We have an unlikely coalition being formed here. The fact is that we need to know those things at a technical and practical level, but we have heard nothing from the Government yet. Members in the other place debated the issues, but no Minister has yet told us what the Government mean, in clear terms that teachers can understand, head teachers can implement, and Ofsted can inspect.
Those are the two points I wanted to make. First, simply because of geographical considerations, parents do not necessarily have a choice in sending their child to a faith school. Secondly, we have to decide what we mean by community cohesion. I know what I mean by community cohesion—it is what I have worked for all my life—but am not sure that an Ofsted inspector will know, or that that inspector will get a steer from the Government of the day.
It is important to note that the Government have listened to the representations on the promotion of community cohesion. The arguments were first made in the Education and Skills Committee report last year. It recommended a duty to promote social and community cohesion, which the Government rejected. When the Bill was in Committee, the same arguments were advanced at somewhat greater length, and the Government again rejected them. It is greatly to the Government’s credit that they have shown themselves to be a listening Government, who have finally taken on board those arguments.
I wish to comment on the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) in the context of the obligations of those children who are not of the faith of the school to which they are admitted under the new agreement—that is, those children who form part of the 25 per cent. of admissions in addition to those selected according to the faith. It seems to me that, in principle, his argument is precisely the opposite of the argument that should be made in the spirit of the new accord. It simply cannot be a school’s prime function to propagate a specific faith at the expense of the delivery of high quality education; nor can it be regarded as reasonable to oblige children who are admitted to a school as part of that additional 25 per cent. to be open to—to accept without question—the propagation of the faith.
The issue is a difficult one. At some point, if not today, the Government and the major faiths need to agree a comprehensive statement on the precise balance between the role of propagating the faith and the role of delivering high quality education. I am not saying that it is a simple matter in which the distinctions are always clear, but it seems to me that the most powerful argument in favour of the compromise agreement on admitting children not of the faith, which the Secretary of State has worked hard to achieve, is that children who are not of the faith should not be subjected to a religious interpretation that is at odds with their own assumptions or their parents’ belief. It is entirely in the spirit of the promotion of community cohesion that diversity of beliefs is allowed to flourish within a school.
Perhaps we should have considered this issue in more detail in Committee, but at that point, sadly, the concept of the 25 per cent. quota was not on the agenda. However, even though we are coming to it quite late in the day, it would be helpful if my right hon. Friend said something about it now. Perhaps he will also reflect on whether there is a need for further discussion between the Government and the major faiths so that they can agree some sort of protocol that will give schools effective guidance on how to handle such matters.
Many hon. Members have spoken about faith schools and I shall do so, too, but first I wish to discuss the many state schools in inner-city areas where the vast majority of pupils come from ethnic minority communities, and how we deal with issues of social cohesion in those schools.
I attended a comprehensive school in Sparkbrook in Birmingham—an area where there was not a great mix. One of the things that our teachers did was form a rugby club—it was set up by two Welshmen and an Englishman: Mr. Duggan, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Burton. We played rugby against other schools, most of them outside the inner cities. One of the first schools that we played was a private school, which we beat, so that was a good result for us. Those teachers had a commitment to ensuring that we achieved the integration that all of us deserve in this society.
Although several hon. Members have spoken about religious schools, it should be recognised that only a limited number of pupils go to faith schools. A huge number of pupils in our communities do not. Community cohesion is an issue in schools where there are large numbers of pupils from the ethnic minorities and a limited amount of mix. In north-west Birmingham, we deal with cohesion through cluster programmes and through the learning and schools council and the local education authority. We have built up relationships between schools in the area so that they work together and support each other. Rather than segregating schools in the area, we try and get them working together. That has a far better effect.
There are positive measures in the Bill relating to inspection criteria for community cohesion and understanding. The argument is not about multiculturalism or community relations, it is about how we improve the education of those young people and get them to interact with their peers in different parts of our society and our community and in different geographical areas. That is the fundamental issue that the Bill addresses, and it is why I support it. We need to allow such experience to be gained so that we can formulate best practice. I should be happy for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to come to Birmingham and see some of the good work that has been done. I commend the proposals in the Bill.
I shall deal with some of the questions that were raised before turning to the wider issues—how community cohesion will work and how the 25 per cent. will work. I will take a few moments, in the hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) will return to the Chamber, as he asked me some important questions.
On the admissions code, I can tell the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that we plan to make it clear that the arrangements for introducing not of that faith into faith schools will be voluntary. If we did so by regulation, that could end up being compulsory. On the question whether we are making any changes to the code that will affect existing schools, the answer is no.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) asked an important question about co-operation with children’s services. It will be downto the governing body to decide how it promotes well-being, but in doing so it must have regard to the local children and young people’s plan provided for in the Bill. The plan will cover the need to work with the full range of children’s services. On the other important point that the hon. Lady raised, Ofsted will look at schools’ collaboration with other schools and partners. That is included in their self-evaluation framework, which is why the endorsement of Christine Gilbert, the new inspector of schools, was so important. Her letter in reply to my noble Friend Lord Adonis made it clear that Ofsted welcomes the proposal and can make it work.
I shall spend a little time on the two main aspects. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that the propositions emerged in the other place. That was one of the problems with the 25 per cent. quota—for want of a better term. It made us realise the need for proper consultation. When we sat down with the faith groups and started to talk the issue through, we found, first, that it was unwise to proceed with that as a compulsory measure, and secondly, that there was a consensus on a number of matters.
I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North that that is not the end of the discussions with the faith groups. We started a valuable discussion, which we have agreed to continue. Let me set out who was represented in those discussions. We had, among others, the director of education of the Church of England Board of Education, the director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, two representatives of the Association of Muslim Schools, and the director of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, all sitting around a table having a conversation about how we improve community cohesion.
That would have been slightly perverse. We were looking to see how faith groups could integrate better and how greater community cohesion could be achieved. We knew what the view of the National Secular Society would be—that we should not have faith groups in the first place. I do not share that view and it is not the subject of debate today. Faith schools exist, and I believe they perform an important role in our education system. The question has to be how we can ensure greater community cohesion and better integration.
My hon. Friend raises a good point. No, I was not saying that. I was saying that it would have been rather perverse to have secular groups round that table, because we were discussing how faith schools can better integrate. I will, of course, have a separate discussion with the National Secular Society.
What did we find out in those discussions? We found out from Muslim representatives that as a matter of policy they would want between 20 and 25 per cent. of pupils in Muslim schools to come from outside the Muslim faith. They said, with a good deal of justification, I think, that their problem was the way their schools and the faith were misrepresented. They welcomed the opportunity to have the discussion about how we can take matters forward. We could make enormous progress on a voluntary basis. If we had continued to move down the road of compulsion, I do not think we would have had the same spirit of co-operation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East put his finger on the two main issues—with the 25 per cent. of children from outside the faith coming into faith schools, what will happen with religious education, and what will happen to the ethos of the school? He spoke as though that was not already happening.
I make three important points. First, 30 per cent. of the students in Catholic schools are not from the Catholic faith. Secondly, at the King David school in Liverpool, a Jewish school, the majority of the students—never mind 20 or 30 per cent.—are not of the Jewish faith. It is an excellent school that received a brilliant Ofsted report and is working very well. Thirdly, the St. Francis of Assisi academy in Liverpool was set up as 50 per cent. Catholic and 50 per cent. Anglican in one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool. It is a brilliant school. In schools throughout the country, we have day in, day out the experience of parents not from that faith choosing faith schools. My message to my hon. Friend is that nothing has changed in that respect.
On the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), sometimes—rarely—parents do not have a choice about sending their children to those schools, but usually they want to send their children there because of the ethos of the school. Muslim parents send their children to Catholic schools because they like the ethos of the school. That happens right across faiths, so we must not talk as though there is a great problem that needs to be resolved. The problems are being resolved daily by good practice in existing schools.
Does the Secretary of State accept that this is a multi-layered matter? There are compelling pieces of work showing that outcomes at schools are mainly determined first, by the determination of parents to ensure that their children do well, secondly, by experienced teachers, and thirdly, by good buildings and so on. The rest hardly matters. I have never come across any piece of work suggesting that outcomes are better in faith schools than anywhere else because of the faith element. The schools that he mentions will probably have these inputs: fairly bright children; a degree of selection, dare I say; and good buildings and good quality all round. Does he accept that those deliver the outcomes that we all so desperately want for all our children?
I do not think that my hon. Friend can support an argument that faith schools have worse results as a question of faith. Evidence shows that there is a premium in terms of educational outcomes at all faith schools, whether Sikh, Jewish or whatever. I will not make that argument because issues other than faith are involved. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of good parenting, good leadership, good teachers and so on, but he is trying to turn the issue into one of our opening up something that we should not in respect of voluntary agreements. My point is based on the incontrovertible fact that 30 per cent. of students in Catholic schools are not from the Catholic faith. If my hon. Friend needs any more examples, there are good ones all over the country. Eighty per cent. of pupils at Sir John Cass’s Foundation and Red Coat Church of England secondary school in Tower Hamlets are Muslim. Lord Ahmed made an excellent contribution in the House of Lords in which he pointed out that in many C of E schools 98 per cent. of the students are from the Muslim faith or a minority faith. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a multi-layered problem, but he gives the impression that he is seeing spectres, ghosts and shadows where they do not exist.
The second point was how we ensure that Ofsted can consider community cohesion. I refer hon. Membersto a document called “Guidance on Community Cohesion”, produced in 2002 by the Local Government Association, the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Inter Faith Network. I counsel those who are worried about this not to be worried. As I said, Ofsted already inspects many aspects of community cohesion. Ever since it was set up, it has been duty bound to report on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils. Everyone, including secularists and faith groups, can unite around community cohesion, provided that we do not use it as a handy phrase and then forget about it. It is important that Ofsted accepts, as it does, that it is able to take this role, and that we continue the discussion on how to have more voluntary agreements.
To echo my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), I want Muslim schools to be keen to ensure that they promote community cohesion. We must give them the opportunity to do that and talk to them about what barriers prevent them from doing it. We can achieve so much more. This is not the end of the debate—in many ways, it is the beginning. In the context of the Bill, it is a debate about how we can take a voluntary, consensual route. The provisions on community cohesion will help us to do that.
Lords amendment agreed to.
LEAs in England: provision of travel arrangements etc for children
Lords amendment: No. 53.
Lords amendments Nos. 53 and 218 to 221 extend the provisions for free school travel for low income groups to include secondary-aged children attending the nearest school preferred on the grounds of religion or belief within a 15-mile radius. Evidence suggests that choice of school, particularly for low income groups, is often restricted by parental concerns about the cost and availability of transport. Forty-one per cent. of parents living in social housing cite travel convenience as the most important reason for choosing a school, compared with only 33 per cent. of owner-occupiers. To create equity in the system, it is crucial that lack of affordable transport be removed as a barrier to choice. While the existing proposals extended rights to free transport for low income groups to one of their three nearest schools, we believe that lack of affordable transport should not stand as a barrier to parents exercising a choice based on their religion or belief—or, in the context of how the law defines belief, their lack of belief.
Lords amendments Nos. 84 and 222 are technical amendments to section 6 of the Transport Act 1985.
We welcome the amendment, which will support the choices of less well-off parents who want to choose a school on the basis of a religious preference. It reflects the challenges that parents from less well-off backgrounds face in transporting their children to and from school when those schools are not within walking distance. It is also welcome at a time when many local authorities are ceasing denominational travel. The amendment is a welcome supplement to the duty under clause 77 that requires local authorities to have regard to the religious preferences of parents in connection with school travel. Under clause 77—this will interest humanists on the Labour Benches—references to “religion” and “belief” include
“a reference to lack of religion”
or “lack of belief”. The amendment will therefore give less well-off secular parents the right to transport away from a local Church school, just as it gives parents with a faith preference the right to attend the appropriate religious school.
The hon. Gentleman is right, although that has always been the case in law, as has been shown in a court settlement in Lancashire. Does he agree that it is important that the guidance to local authorities produced by the Department should clearly spell out the point that he is making? At the moment it does not do so, and has been subject to criticism by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and others because it will lure LEAs into thinking only of faith schoolsand denominational schools without considering his important point about non-religious parents not wanting their child to go to such a school.
I always regard guidance as a form of tertiary legislation that has no scrutiny in the House, and prefer to use primary legislation if possible.Clause 77 is very clear. New section 509AD(3) defines “religion” as “any religion” and states that
“a reference to religion includes a reference to lack of religion”.
As it is clear in primary legislation, it is unnecessary to have it in guidance as well, although there is no harm in doing so.
The Forum for Rural Children and Young People has said:
“Rural children and young people often find school transport unresponsive to their needs.”
Those problems were echoed by the social exclusion unit in its report, “Making the Connections: Final Report on Transport and Social Exclusion”. It noted that, in some areas, children are prevented from taking part in extra-curricular activities because of the lack of public transport at the required time. The Central Council of Physical Recreation states in the report that between 40 and 45 per cent. of pupils in a particular school were missing out on after-school activities due to transport constraints.
The report also highlighted a more general concern about the availability of transport in rural areas. More than half the people in those areas live more than13 minutes’ walk away from an hourly daytime bus service, and 29 per cent. of rural settlements have no bus service at all. This lack of public transport—combined with the lack, and high cost, of taxis—leaves many people unable to get to key places. All this becomes even more difficult when a local denominational school closes and children are forced to travel even further to attend school.
The remaining amendments in this group amend the Transport Act 1985. They will ensure that school transport is not regulated on the same basis as public transport. In particular, they will give local authorities greater flexibility to vary the times of services. These are not controversial amendments. It is unreasonable to treat school transport used only by pupils at a school as though it were the same as general public transport that is open to all. We support the remaining amendments in the group.
I have very little to add to what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has said. I just want to make one or two points. I always hope that people will listen to the points that I make, and that I am not just waffling away for hours on end.
I want to mention large families in relation to this amendment and to all the proposals on school transport. There could be an enormous burden on a family with four or five children which does not qualify for free transport because its income is just over the required level. Such a burden could pull the family back quite considerably. This is particularly relevant in the context of faith schools.
I am also concerned that there is no equity, in terms of choice, between those who live in rural areas and those who live in urban areas. A child living in a rural area is highly unlikely to have a choice of three secondary schools within six miles. Has any thought been given to that matter?
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to add a question for the Minister to the comments that I made in my earlier intervention on the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). I have here a copy of the fourth report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights for the 2005-06 session, which reported on the Equality Bill with specific reference to school transport. The Minister will be aware that a succession of reports from the Joint Committee has flagged up the problem with the existing guidance. I shall quote briefly from the report, as that will be the most succinct way of making my point. Paragraph 49 states:
“The revised prospectus was much improved and met our concerns in relation to being misleading. There remained a matter of concern to the previous Committee, however, inthat it”—
that is, the guidance set out in the draft prospectus for local education authorities accompanying the School Transport Bill of the previous Parliament—
“stated that a difference of treatment on grounds of religious or philosophical belief could be objectively justified on grounds of reasonable cost.”
The previous Committee had recommended that
“guidance on school transport issued by the DfES in Circular Letter of 21 January 1994, be amended to include specific guidance on non-discrimination.”
The Joint Committee concluded:
“We are concerned that this current Bill does nothing to dispel, and may reinforce, the apparent misapprehension of some LEAs that it is permissible to discriminate against children of parents with non-religious convictions in the provision of school transport. We reiterate the concerns of the previous Committee, that guidance for LEAs on this matter is inadequate to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Act, and recommend that guidance should be produced under this Bill”—
that is, the Equality Bill—
“which should make clear that, as the Government has previously accepted, there is a duty under the Human Rights Act to make equal provision for school transport to support education in accordance with both religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs.”
I accept that that is clear in the Bill that we are discussing today, but the Minister with responsibility for equality said that guidance would be producedafter the passage of this Bill. Will the Minister, in responding to this debate, reiterate that assurance and clarify that the language of the guidance will make it absolutely clear that it covers not only denominational schools but “non-religious beliefs” as well?
On that last point, I hope that I can reassure the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) to his complete satisfaction that guidance to local authorities will be rewritten to accompany these clauses, and that it will be fully compliant with the European convention on human rights, including its references to lack of religion and belief. I hope that that is a clear enough statementfor him.
One thing that is not clear from my reading of the proceedings on the Bill in another place is the question of the cost implications of these provisions. The Education and Skills Committee carried out a thorough review of the former School Transport Bill—which, as the Minister will remember, disappeared in that form—and one thing that we learned was just how expensive school transport is, and how expensive special educational needs transport is, within that budget. These amendments would result in serious cost implications for local authorities, which could have a disproportionate effect on certain types of local authority. Does the Minister have any evidence on that matter?
Cost was certainly a factor when we were considering whether to extend the distance to15 miles or to opt for a lesser distance. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we opted for the greater distance at a cost of £10.7 million a year. That is funding that we will clearly need to pass on to local authorities on the basis of an analysis of need. Representing a Dorset seat with significant rural areas, I am conscious of the extra costs that can be incurred in such areas, and I obviously want to ensure that they are properly funded so that they can deliver the appropriate service to my constituents.
May I record my thanks to the Minister for his commitment on the guidance? Would he be kind enough to reassure members of the Joint Committee that a draft of the guidance will be offered to them for comment before it is finalised? The Committee has informally been told, as we can see in paragraph 50 of its first report on this Bill, that that will be the case.
I shall be very happy to look at how we relate to the Joint Committee in respect of ensuring that we deliver on the promise that I have given to the hon. Gentleman that the provisions will be compliant. The Committee is an important authority in the House on this matter, and we must have proper regard to it.
I welcome the important comments made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) on extra-curricular activity. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) asked about large families that did not qualify for free transport. As ever, with any provision made by the state that is assessed on the basis of income, there will be those who fall just short of qualifying. I have seen people in my own constituency who face similar problems. However, we have to draw the line somewhere. There may be some large families for whom exercising their choice involves a financial consideration along with other matters, particularly in sparsely populated rural areas that do not offer the same degree of choice as urban areas, where distance is less of an issue, although congestion might be a factor. I am pleased, however, that the hon. Lady supports the Lords amendments, and I think that I have responded to the other points that have been made.
I am grateful for the figure that the Minister gave us on the extra cost of school transport. Local authorities will be relieved, and even more so when they get the cheque in the post. In parallel with the change in the eligibility for free transport over much longer distances, there is the fast-tracking of some Muslim faith schools into the maintained sector, and some of those in my area are Muslim girls schools. My Select Committee visited Birmingham, where, on one side of the ring road, there is the largest girls school in Europe. Has the Department considered the large number of parents in urban areas who, under the new eligibility, might choose to send their children long distances to get single-sex education? Is the Minister aware that, as has happened in Birmingham, that often removes the ability to have a gender balance in any of the local schools?
Obviously, we keep that issue under review, and I would be happy to have a longer conversation with my hon. Friend about his experience in Birmingham. I was happy to visit Birmingham this week to open three new special schools in the area. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit the schools that he has in mind. We must certainly consider the effect that choice has on movement and congestion, onwhich we have discussions with the Department for Transport. Clearly, however, we firmly believe in parental choice as an important factor in driving up standards in schools. I would not want to interfere too much with that.
I think my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and I will continue that conversation on another occasion, which will keep you happier, Madam Deputy Speaker, and allow us to move on. I commend the Lords amendments to the House.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Before Clause 50
Lords amendment: No. 46
In relation to the Bill, the issue was originally raised by the National Secular Society in communication with Education Ministers and with the Joint Committee on Human Rights on which I serve. It asked whether it was correct in human rights terms for the opt-outs from collective worship and religious education to rest only with parents of young people, when those young people should be considered to be competent humans in their own right. As a result of those representations on both collective worship and religious education, the Joint Committee took legal advice, as is the usual process. According to that advice, unless young people who are competent to make a decision about their article 9 rights with regard to freedom of religion were able to exercise an opt-out, the Government were at risk, in legislation and in practice, of breaching the Human Rights Act 1998. There is a right not to be forced, when one is old enough to know whether one believes in God, or in which God one believes, to pray against one’s will to another deity. That right applies regardless of age—there is no age threshold for human rights. Indeed, the UN convention on the rights of the child—and I have heard some of my hon. Friends speak eloquently on that—provides specifically for consultation with children on their education and other matters.
In other areas, such as in the provision of contraceptive advice, the Minister will be aware that young people are able to consent to medical and surgical intervention, including the right to access an abortion, without parental consent or even parental knowledge. In such cases, the health professionalmust decide routinely whether the young person is competent enough to make a decision about their health. In relation to sexual health, that judgment is often activated at around age 14. Religious belief will vary according to the maturity of the child, but a child who has a strong view against belief in God should not be forced in any state school, under the Human Rights Act, to pray, whether individually or collectively.
The Joint Committee also covered the question of religious education. The reason that there is an opt-out for religious education, which seems strange to many people, given that it is a subject rather than worship, is that it has no central curriculum. In voluntary aided and voluntary controlled schools with a faith ethos, the religion education curricula and syllabuses obviously look extremely different. Religious education syllabuses are generally set by standing advisory committees on religious education in each local authority area. For faith schools, there is a layer on top of that, which is the faith school deciding. As the Government have always recognised, however, the curriculum or syllabus is designed and delivered in such a way that there is no current protection for those parents who do not want their children exposed to both the content and style of delivery of directional religious education—which used to be called religious instruction, partly because of the way in which it is delivered in a few schools.
The Government’s draft guidance on the Equality Act 2006 in respect of discrimination on religion describes an exception needed in some schools for children to continue to be discriminated against on the basis of what they are allowed to read out aloud. Some religious texts, some schools have urged, should not be allowed to be read out by a child who is not of the right religion, because to do so would be sacrilegious.
I never thought for a moment that that would be an issue, let alone an example in the Government’s draft guidance to schools on how to ensure that they have adequate exemptions in place to avoid charges of religious discrimination. That is the sort of context in which religious education is currently provided.
My view—and I believe that there is sympathy for this view in my party, although our Front-Bench spokesman will also speak—is that religious education is important in terms of the teaching of comparative religion, and that its presence in the syllabus is necessary as religion is part of our culture and history. Just like history, geography, philosophy, belief studies and citizenship studies, it needs to be taught and taught well. Clearly, some variation is needed to ensure that children of a particular belief are taught about it. It would be bizarre for the content in a school that had lots of Muslims, or that was a Muslim faith school as it currently exists, to be related mainly to Christianity. The curriculum must ensure, however, that those of all beliefs and none are covered.
Were that part of the national curriculum or, as I would like, a minimum curriculum entitlement, there would be no need for a parental opt-out on religious education. Because that is not currently part of the national curriculum, however, there is a parental opt-out, and rightly so. For reasons that I have explained, I have never argued against that opt-out. Where that opt-out exists for parents, because of their human rights need for their wishes to be respected, it must also apply to young people who are old enough to decide for themselves, rather than it being imposed by parents or authority figures. After all, the House should be concerned about the radicalisation of some young people by older people, potentially including their parents, teaching them a brand of religion that they might want to resist. If young people cannot excuse themselves from rather directional teaching at school, we cannot even start the battle to ensure that they are immune from such proselytisation. After all, we do not allow political inculcation, which is a brand of belief inculcation, in our schools.
I hope that the Minister accepts that religious education should be just that—education, not instruction, inculcation or proselytisation. However, the very existence of opt-outs is due to the local variation that is allowed, and the fact that faith schools may include in their lessons materials such as instructional videos from a pro-life group, showing abortion in graphic terms. One school allowed just such a video to be shown recently. The young people at that Catholic sixth-form college objected to having to attend compulsory collective worship for long periods, and to receiving such education or instruction. When they rebelled and refused to attend, they were excluded by the head teacher, who felt strongly about the subject. In the end, the matter was settled in favour of the students, and I believe that the head teacher resigned. Young people need the statutory right to say that they do not want such instruction imposed on them.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but I hope that he does not want us to move towards excluding people from religious education, or from classes on comparative religion. In any sustainable, multicultural, multi-faith society, it is essential that all children are brought up with some understanding of the multiplicity of faiths, and of people with no faith.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I thought that I had made the point that if education of that kind was included in the national curriculum, or if it formed part of a minimum curriculum entitlement subject that was clearly defined, agreed to and accepted, there would be no need for any opt-out. The risk that the hon. Gentleman runs is that the kind of education that he mentions is lost at the moment to those children whose parents withdraw them from religious education lessons. There is a good argument for including such information, which I agree is vital—I have said so twice—in a religious education and beliefs or citizenship curriculum, in which pupils could examine their responsibilities to others, and their own beliefs, or lack of them. That would be fair enough. I hope that that point is understood. However, because the system does not work like that, and because, in some cases, lesson content is not as balanced as the hon. Gentleman suggests it should be, there is a parental opt-out. The Joint Committee on Human Rights was firm in its view that, if an opt-out is deemed necessary for parents, it must also be available to young people who are competent.
To finish, I shall deal with the Government’s concession in the House of Lords, in response to a Liberal Democrat amendment tabled by Baroness Walmsley and supported by Members of all parties. After the subject was raised in Standing Committee, and following the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Government consulted the faith community on the issue, but very narrowly. It consulted only on collective worship, and only in respect of sixth-formers, rather than all those competent to decide. They did not ask about some of the other issues in the Joint Committee’s report—indeed, the consultation did not refer to the report—and they did not refer at all to the human rights issue at the heart of the subject.
After that consultation, the Government returned with a welcome but rather narrow amendment that allows sixth-form pupils to withdraw from collective worship. I shall pocket that concession, and I thank the Minister for it, but he should accept that one is either in breach of human rights or not; we cannot say, “Well, ensuring 25 per cent. of those rights is okay”. The concession left out the half of our amendment that dealt with religious education, as well as the issue of 15 or 16-year-olds who are not in the sixth form, but who know that they do not want to attend compulsory prayer—at least, not the compulsory prayer on offer. Those young people should have that right, even if their parents think that they—excuse my language—damn well should attend.
The Minister has to explain why he chose not to consult on the issue and why the consultation was so narrow, and he should respond to the point made by my noble Friend Baroness Walmsley, who said that the Government’s provisions might well open the door for a case to be brought under the Human Rights Act 1998. Why should the Government wait? What is their fear? It has been argued that it would be difficult for schools to decide what Gillick competence was, but that was not an argument against ensuring rights in respect of the provision of medical treatment. I have not heard that argument advanced—especially not by Liberal Democrat Members—in discussion of pupil choice, a subject on which we have a policy to ensure that pupils, after receiving advice, have more choice over their curriculum. Nor was that argument used on the subject of the rights of a child to be consulted; there was no worry about whether the child was not competent to feed into that consultation. It seems to the Joint Committee, and to other human rights authorities to which I have spoken, that that is not a problem; schools can make a decision when a child comes to them and gives good reasons for not wanting to attend religious education or collective worship.
My party has a long history of calling for collective worship not to be compulsory in school, but for schools to provide prayer rooms, so that people who wish to pray and worship may do so, whatever their religious belief—and young people have the right to express their religious belief. The converse of ensuring that worship is not compulsory is allowing young people, as a minimum, to opt out of what is organised for them. The Government are particularly vulnerable on the issue of collective worship.
I hope that the Minister understands where other hon. Members and I are coming from. This is not an attack on the proper teaching of religious education, or on freedom of religion—I believe that people should be able to pray in prayer rooms, outside lesson hours, at schools—but I hope that he will explain why he does not propose to take the Joint Committee’s advice on this important issue.
The issues raised by the hon. Gentleman have already been debated in another place, as he said. The amendments would allow competent pupils to withdraw themselves from collective worship and religious education. They build on Lords amendment No. 46, which would allow sixth-form pupils in maintained schools to withdraw from attendance at the daily act of collective worship. In drafting the amendment, we took account of the views of the faith groups and other interested parties. We recognise that worship is an issue on which young people have views, and we believe that allowing sixth-form pupils to withdraw from worship is reasonable. The amendment will deal with the example that he gave of the dispute in the Catholic sixth-form college.
My hon. Friend referred to allowing sixth-form pupils to make a decision. I am pleased that, when I was young—if I can remember that far back in my own life—I went to bible class and Sunday school. I am concerned that children of atheist parents often get no religious education at all, when they should get a broad religious education. I was confirmed in the Church of England at the age of 15. Does my hon. Friend not think that, as I was able to take a decision of that kind at that age, and consequently to decide whether I wished to stay with that faith, I should have been allowed to decide whether to engage in religious worship at school, too?
I will address my hon. Friend’s important point when I talk about the issue of competence, which is right at the heart of this debate.
We believe that there is a clear distinction to be made between a broad and balanced religious education, taught in our schools, and worship. As the Secretary of State said earlier this year, all the faith communities have agreed to ensure that pupils are taught about all faiths in their schools. The days when religious education was synonymous with religious instruction are long gone. Indeed, learning about other faiths is increasingly important to ensure the community cohesion that we discussed earlier. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said on that point.
As for withdrawal from RE, we expect schools to teach the subject in a manner that is compatible with pupils’ human rights. Indeed, maintained schools are obliged to do so as public authorities under the Human Rights Act 1998, although it would be for the courts to decide whether human rights have been breached on the facts of a particular case. If RE is taught appropriately and parents can withdraw their children, It is unlikely that pupils’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion will be breached. The distinction between collective worship and RE centres on the notion that teaching covers all religions so that sixth-form pupils are not taught religious instruction.
To some extent, the opt-out was left over from the days of religious instruction, but I support it none the less. The national curriculum does not set out what should be taught in RE, as there is flexibility according to the school’s foundation. It is appropriate to allow parents to exercise that right if they choose to do so.
The Minister has not responded to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), so will he confirm that a good RE syllabus that assists with social integration and covers a range of options should specifically include humanist and secular beliefs? The great Liberal MP, Charles Bradlaugh, changed the law in the late 19th century so that he could enter Parliament without swearing an oath on the Bible. That is a hard-won right, which surely should be present in RE syllabuses, too.
It is important that children learn about all beliefs as well as non-religious beliefs in RE. I am not blessed with faith, and I firmly believe that, given that many of us do not have any religious belief, our views should be understood and valued equally with faith-based beliefs.
I thank the Minister for his earlier comments, but is he confident that the general consensus in the House that there should be education in both faith and non-faith is being implemented in schools across the country? I visit faith schools that often teach comparative religion brilliantly, but other schools do not teach it so well. Does he have a method to monitor such teaching?
In our earlier debate on Ofsted inspections and community cohesion, the Secretary of State referred to the long-standing inspection of teaching to develop pupils’ spiritual well-being. That is something that we inspect, and I am confident that we manage to deliver it. Obviously, different schools emphasise different aspects of such teaching, but my own children, who have attended faith schools, have learned about different faiths. My family does not live in a multi-faith community but, nevertheless, those Anglican schools ensured that pupils are aware of the views of other faiths and, I think, non-religious faiths.
Turning to the issue of competence, we must strike a balance between the competence of young people to make decisions for themselves on issues of conscience and the smooth running of the school. We believe that we have struck the right balance. In the school context, it is justified and proportionate to interfere with the child’s rights in the interests of maintaining order and the smooth running of the school. The Bill states that the Government
“has made the following statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998…the provisions of the Education and Inspections Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.”
That statement informs our view. My noble Friend Lord Adonis said in the other place on 17 October:
“Although Gillick competence is a relevant consideration, this is a difficult and complex issue. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley,”—
who was cited by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)—
“said, competence does not necessarily arise all at once, nor does each pupil become competent at the same time. Different people develop at different rates.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,17 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 736.]
It is a burden on schools to make a decision on competence. We base competence on age in many other settings—for example, the age of consent and the age at which someone can drive—so we believe that that it is simplest to provide that once someone enters the sixth form, they achieve competence.
I do not think that the age of consent is the correct human rights comparison. Human rights measures allow states to impose an age of consent for sexual activity to protect vulnerable people. Everything that the Minister said about the difficulty of assessing competence should apply to arguably more important issues such as the giving of contraception advice and abortions. Why is there no age cut-off for those matters?
Clearly, that is not my area of competence. However, such work takes place with individuals, whereas we are asking schools to make decisions about a cohort in assessing the competence of all their pupils and whether or not they should offer them the right. The proposal is not workable. We would certainly have to undertake a significant consultation of schools and the work force to see whether they agreed with the hon. Gentleman or me, and whether a test of competence was workable. I therefore urge the House to reject the hon. Gentleman’s proposal and to accept Lords amendment No. 46.
I am conscious of the irony that this is the third of four groups of amendments to be dominated by the issue of religion. I do not recall much discussion of the subject in our earlier proceedings—I am not sure whether that reflects the rich spiritual heritage of the Lords or the godless nature of the Commons—but God certainly seems to be omnipresent today.
I welcome Lords amendment No. 46, which was tabled by the Government in response to arguments made by my noble Friend Baroness Walmsley in Committee in the Lords. In a powerful argument, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made it clear that the pre-existing inability of older students to excuse themselves from collective worship and religious instruction is incompatible with their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in article 9 of the European convention on human rights. The right for pupils to be excused from religious education and attendance at common worship lies with the parent, but article 9 makes it clear that pupils should enjoy their own rights.
In the Lords, we tabled an amendment to that effect, setting the limit at 16, which is widely recognised asthe legal age of maturity. In their response, the Government said that they would table an amendment under which the limit would be when pupils entered the sixth form. That is not the legal point that we were trying to make but, nevertheless, we welcome it as a pragmatic solution. I think that the Government knew that they were bang to rights, so they caved in, and did not listen to our persuasive arguments as much as we would like. As my hon. Friend my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said, the Joint Committee on Human Rights stated thatthe Government response would significantly reduce the chances of a legal challenge, but would not remove it completely. We are sympathetic to his arguments, but the Government response is a welcome first step in meeting our concerns.
My hon. Friend asked whether arguments about pragmatism should apply, given that an age limit is not set for consultations between a young person and their doctor or health adviser. I agree with the Minister that such issues are generally dealt with one to one, and do not involve the management of relationships between groups and organisations. We understand that thereare pragmatic considerations, but I should like the Government to see the proposal as a first step and to review it as the arrangements bed down.
I am happy enough to keep it under review, along with a number of other issues. This case, however, differs from that of medical treatment, as individuals would effectively exclude themselves from lessons. That would create an “order issue” for schools, which would have to decide what provision to make for such individuals. It could have an impact on a whole cohort, not just an individual.
There are two separate issues, one of which is collective worship. A pragmatic consideration for schools is that they may have to arrange collective worship separately from different assemblies, and it will take time for them to organise that. The second issue is religious education. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made this point very well: I do not think that I could have made it better. We believe—as do many other Members on both sides of the House—that religious education should include education in all faiths and none, to ensure that it is at the heart of our dealings with social cohesion and social integration.
The Secretary of State said at the outset that the new amendments were part of an ongoing dialogue with the faith community and faith schools. I ask the Minister to ensure that this issue, perhaps above all others, is at the heart of those dealings with faith schools. If we ensure that religious education really is multi-faith, really does broaden young people’s minds and really is an aid to social cohesion, we shall avoid the controversy about opt-outs from lessons and the difficulties with order that the Minister mentioned, and we will need no more debates such as this. Debate will be confined to such issues as common worship and assembly, which are easier to deal with.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her helpful and constructive approach to the issue. Does she agree that if this is indeed part of an ongoing process, the Minister should take the step to which he referred, and consult on how he could go further? That could include asking young people about their own views—a move that the Liberal Democrats have been suggesting for a long time.
Schools already have to make separate arrangements for children whose parents withdraw them from collective worship. The amendment might increase the number, but perhaps schools should do what we do in the House, where prayers take place at the beginning of sittings. Those of us who are not religious can then turn up a little later, although it is not so easy for us to book a seat.
I will not get involved in the issue of booking seats in the House, which is far more controversial than religion. However, I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, especially as it leads me to my final point.
I welcome the Government’s provisions in Lords amendments Nos. 54 and 65. The Liberal Democrats have said for a long time that consultation of young people must be the same as consultation of all other users of public services: all must have an opportunity to present their views, not just a chosen few who may well say what a school or another service provider wishes to hear.
Lords amendment No. 46 is a welcome first step, but I hope that it represents the beginning of further work by the Government.
As we have all heard, Lords amendment No. 46 gives sixth formers the right to opt out of collective worship. At present, only parents can withdraw their children from collective worship and religious education.
We have had a wide-ranging and interesting debate in which a variety of views have been expressed. I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) that the Government were forced into accepting the argument that to leave the law unchanged would be incompatible with the legal framework established under human rights legislation. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has been mentioned a number of times in the debate, certainly suggested that.
We should put the issue in the specific context of the Education Act 1944 and the Education Reform Act 1988. I do not think that the Minister has been entirely accurate—I will not say “open”—about the application of the existing law and the way in which this proposal affects it. The Bill does not alter schools’ obligation, established in the 1944 Act and supported by the 1988 Act, to provide a daily act of worship of a mainly or broadly Christian character. I happen to think that that is right, but—as has been pointed out by Members on both sides of the House—any good school will apply it with sensitivity. Any good school should teach comparative religion, and any good school should take account of the people whom it serves and the community in which it is situated.
Those sensitivities, and that lateral approach, should of course obtain in schools throughout the country. The Minister spoke about his area, which is not a multi-faith area and I could speak of mine, which is a rather similar rural area with what could be described as a largely monocultural character. As the Minister suggested, however, even in areas of that kind children should have a taste of the rich diet represented by a variety of cultural understandings and an appreciation of different religions.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made the same point. Paraphrasing Coleridge, he said that religion, true or false, was the centre of gravity of a society and schools should pay proper regard to children’s understanding of it. He now wishes to intervene, perhaps to add another poetic reference to the one he has already offered.
And some other substances as well, I understand.
Surely there is a difference between a compulsorily available act of collective Christian worship every day in a school and access to a broad range of religious opinion. My constituency is totally multi-faith and multicultural in every conceivable way. In some schools there are as many Muslim as there are Christian children, or children whose parents have no faith at all. I do not think that the compulsory collective act is necessarily what we are seeking. What we want to do is bring societies and communities together through firm teaching of all religious faiths, so that there is a better understanding of them all.
The hon. Gentleman is right: those two things are different. The important point to understand, however, is that the Bill does not change schools’ obligation to provide both religious education and a daily act of worship. The hon. Gentleman’s argument is, in a sense, with the legislation and the Government rather than with me.
While I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the two things are different, it seems to me entirely proper for them to sit side by side in a good school. The amendments make a number of proposals about who can opt out of those obligations. As the hon. Gentleman will know, at present parental consent is required for any child to opt out—which, again, is entirely appropriate. The amendments suggest that that should not apply to children over 16, which would bring the Bill more closely into line with human rights legislation, although, as the hon. Member for Brent, East said, it would not necessarily do the job completely. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) wants to go further, and allow a wider range of children to exercise judgment if they are deemed competent to do so.
When the hon. Gentleman’s party reaffirmed the compulsory act of worship in statute in 1988, the Labour party—led by its then education spokesman, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith)—and the Liberal Democrats voted against it, because we did not think it right. Worship should be optional, yes, but not compulsory. I see that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has not changed his view, and I hope that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) has not changed his. It appears that other Government Members have since changed their view, but I think developments in society suggest that we should move away from compulsion in religious matters as much as possible where young people are concerned.
Or worship. The hon. Gentleman might find that if his proposal were accepted, people would be allowed to opt out of an enriching experience that would challenge their prejudices. He said that children can draw their prejudices from many sources, including from parents and from home. The hon. Gentleman might be giving children who attend a school with a liberal appreciation of the subject and a proper consideration of other faiths the right to withdraw from that opportunity. Ironically, the hon. Gentleman might expose children to more dogma, not less.
I was a teacher when the Education Act 1988 came into force. A friend of mine, a member of the senior team at the school—an active lay Methodist preacher then and now—was incandescent with rage at the imposition of the requirement for five compulsory acts of worship a week in school. He asked how we could compel people to worship when they did not believe in God. Since we have this bad law, imposed by the Government, we should allow children to exercise their conscience and to opt out if they so wish.
I support the amendment, which says that people over the age of 16 should have the right to withdraw. That is compatible with other judgements made by this House on decisions that people are competent to make at 16. Lord Adonis made it clear that exercising that right through this law would be similar to the rights that people at 16 have to make other choices.
There is a separate argument about people under 16. I have a revelation and a confession to make. Although I do not want to titillate people too much on a quiet Thursday afternoon, the revelation is that many children resist religious education and an act of worship, rather as many children resist eating vegetables or being taught mathematics or physics. The confession is that, at times, I was one of them. I am not sure that any hon. Member could say that, on occasion, they did not resent aspects of their educational experience, some of which were statutory and compulsory. If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon had his way, people would be able to exercise such feelings in terms of their engagement with the school curriculum. Why not mathematics? Why not physics? Why not chemistry?
I do not want to prolong the debate, but the reason maths and physics are different is that, according to the Joint Committee report:
“Children enjoy the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
—not maths and physics—
“under both Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 14(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UK is also under an obligation to assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, and to give those views due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”
It is not a question of maths and physics. Also, it is not a question of 16-year-olds; the amendment refers to sixth formers.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong; many aspects of the curriculum involved in imparting ideas and stimulating thought are inculcating people with a particular view. If we are to do what he advocates, what is to stop someone still more perverse than the hon. Gentleman suggesting that children should opt out of the teaching of history because the teaching of history gives them a coloured view of the past?
I said that there was a difference between people of different ages. As a House, we make a judgment that people at a certain age are likely to be fit to exercise judgments of this kind. Equally, as parliamentarians, good citizens and parents, we understand that people under a certain age are less likely to be fit to make such judgments. This is not rocket science; it is entirely appropriate to support the Lords amendments that pertain to children over 16 and to oppose the extension of the principle by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon.
I do not wish to make the hon. Gentleman’s argument more difficult than it is already. But given that it is now possible to buy a secondary school for £2 million—in order, for instance, to put intelligent design or creationism at the heart of the religious curriculum—is it not sensible to support the amendment, so that people can get out of such positions, particularly when they have no option other than to go to a school that is peddling a particular ideology?
That is a point about how religious education is taught and its nature, as well as about the staff and management of a school. That is a perfectly valid point, but it does not pertain directly to these amendments. Giving children the right to opt out would not be the best way to deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase). There would be more fundamental means of dealing with a school that was not doing the right thing by its pupils and deliberately distorting the curriculum.
We support the Government and the Lords in respect of older pupils. We understand that that will bring the Bill more closely in line with human rights legislation, albeit, as the hon. Member for Brent, East said, not necessarily close enough. However, we resist the extension of that principle, as advocated by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, because we understand that religious education is important. We want as many children as possible to have a good experience of it. We believe that worship is also important and, with the proper protections that exist in law, we do not wish to see that position diluted any further.
Despite the Government giving nothing other than pragmatic grounds for opposing the Joint Committee’s report, it is not appropriate to test the opinion of the House at this stage. We shall have to watch what happens in the courts but I urge the Government to consult further.
Lords amendment No. 46 agreed to.
Before Clause 36
Lords amendment: No. 29.
Clause 37 was tabled by the Government at Lords Report stage of the Bill in response to amendments withdrawn during Lords Committee by the right reverend prelates, the Lord Bishops of Peterborough and of Southwell and Nottingham. Let me be absolutely clear that we are not increasing the ability of faith schools to discriminate in the employment of their staff.
Clause 37 addresses the increased restrictions that have been an unintended consequence of work force reform. Subsection (1) allows the head teacher of a religious foundation or voluntary controlled school in England and Wales to be a reserved teacher—that is, appointed specifically to teach religious education in accordance with the tenets of the school’s specified religion.
Religious foundation and voluntary controlled schools should have the same flexibility as that currently enjoyed by voluntary aided schools, namely, the ability to appoint a head teacher specifically to teach religious education at the school, as well as to carry out their duties as a head teacher. Such flexibility is particularly important in small primary schools, where the existing restriction is unnecessarily burdensome. Should a voluntary controlled school choose to appoint the head teacher as a reserved teacher, that appointment will count towards the one fifth of the teaching staff that are permitted to be appointed as reserved teachers, and hence there is absolutely no increase in discrimination.
Except that there is a difference between voluntary controlled and voluntary aided schools. Will the Minister set out what they are? Will he note that in voluntary controlled schools, 100 per cent. of capital and running costs are provided by the state, and not by the religious foundation or religious interest that has the ethos? Indeed, only a minority of the governors are religious. So there is a reason why VA schools and VC schools have separate consideration in their freedom to apply a faith test at all. Therefore, arguably it should not be that the head of that school should be one of those who are entitled to be sacked, promoted or not appointed on the basis of their religion.
Yes, the foundation; I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s sedentary correction.
The state provides 90 per cent. and the foundation provides 10 per cent. of the capital costs of the school. It will appoint the majority of governors, and it can appoint staff—although it cannot currently appoint support staff, which we shall come on to—on the basis of their faith. Voluntary controlled schools with a religious foundation—not all of them have such a foundation—will appoint the minority of governors. They are 100 per cent. funded by the state. Therefore, the governing body, which would appoint the head teacher, is not dominated by representatives of the faith. Bearing in mind that a majority do not come from the faith, the governing body can choose, if it so wishes—this is up to them—for a head teacher to be appointed to teach religious education and to carry out the duties of a head teacher. It should be allowed to make that choice. They are not currently allowed to do so in law, and we think that that is an anomaly that can be a problem for small primary schools, such as some in my constituency. We should give them the flexibility to make that choice for themselves.
I have a small point to make. On the question of a head teacher teaching religion, and on his or her faith being a test, could it be that a teacher with a stronger faith would be appointed to the head teacher post, ahead of a teacher who might have less faith but has better ability as a teacher?
If the governing body—which, as I said, is not dominated by the faith group, as the majority of its members are not appointed by the foundation—choose to appoint a head teacher on the basis of the strength of their faith rather than their ability to carry out the job and teach religious education, I am sorry to say that that is their choice. I do not think that that would be a brilliant choice, on the basis of the argument that my hon. Friend has set out, but it would be their choice.
I cannot give my hon. Friend an accurate answer to his question on consultation with the NAHT. We have had some limited discussion with our social partners. My hon. Friend will know that the NAHT is not currently one of those partners, although it did originally sign up to the work force agreement. However, we are confident that this measure is very specific, because it is about the appointment to teach religious education as well as to be a head teacher. The effect will be marginal and it will not have any significant impact on the supply of head teachers.
Does the Minister accept that even if he does not think that the numbers would be great, this would be significant to a head teacher who is not appointed, as one person’s career is quite significant to that person? Also, further to the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), will the Minister confirm that if two head teachers, both of whom can teach religious education, apply to such a VC school, but where one is a believer and one is not, it is possible that the governors will choose the less able overall teacher who has the stronger faith rather than one that is capable of teaching RE and is trained to do so, but who does not have such a strong faith or does not go to church as often? Is that the case?
It is the case, but it is the case already. A voluntary controlled foundation school already can have regard to faith in appointing a head; that is in section 60(4) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. However, there is the sole technicality that they cannot be reserved teachers, and that is all that we are seeking to resolve with this Lords amendment.
But does that not get to the point? When we agreed in 1998 that we would go for the20 per cent. proportion, we felt that that was a settlement, but now we want head teachers to be dealt with as well—I believe that the modern term for this is mission creep. Is that not typical of what is going on in respect of this entire section of the Bill?
I apologise to my hon. Friend because I clearly have not been clear enough. There is no mission creep. We are not proposing to extend the 20 per cent. at all. The head teachers would just be included within the reserved teachers—within the 20 per cent. There is no extension whatever. I hope that that helps my hon. Friend and the House.
Subsection (2) of the clause allows voluntary aided faith schools in England to make a case for having regard to an individual’s faith when appointing support staff only—this is very important—where there is a genuine occupational requirement. That conforms with the letter of—
Amendment No. 29 inserts a new clause around staff at foundation or voluntary schools with a religious character. Subsection (1) refers to the head teacher and amends section 58 of the 1998 Act. Subsection (2) amends section 60 of the Act, and also refers to the head teacher.
I shall now move on to amendment No. 74, which refers to support staff. I think that that is correct.
Before my hon. Friend goes on to deal with support staff, I wish to raise a point on head teachers. Am I right that his proposal is that the head teacher should henceforth be in a reserved position? What will happen to existing head teachers who are not of the same faith as the denomination of their school?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are not saying that they should be reserved positions, but that they could be reserved positions. We certainly do not want this to affect existing staff, and we do not believe that it will. When we bring forward the transitional arrangements and the order that will be necessary to put that into effect, we will make sure that we have consulted fully with our partners. Obviously, others will also be able to respond to the consultation, including the National Association of Head Teachers, to make sure that existing head teachers are fully protected from this change. I hope that that helps.
Before the Minister leaves the subject of head teachers, he needs to be aware of exactly what he is proposing by making head teachers reserved teachers. This is a complex issue and currently those who are not reserved teachers have protection under sections 59(2) to (4) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. However, section 60(3) says:
“Sections 59 (2) to (4)”—
those dealing with protection against religious discrimination—
“shall not so apply in relation to a reserved teacher at the school”.
Instead, section 60(5) will apply, as it does to VA schools. It states that
“preference may be given…to persons…whose religious opinions are in accordance with the tenets…who attend religious worship in accordance with those tenets”,
or who are willing and capable of giving religious education, as we have heard. It also states that their conduct in their private lives may be brought into play. So this provision brings head teachers, as reserved teachers, within the full gamut of section 60(5), which is highly discriminatory.
I will deal fully with that issue later, but I repeat that we do not propose to apply this provision to existing head teachers, as we will make very clear. Equally, as we introduce the order we will consult on it fully and work with our social partners to ensure that it is applied as sympathetically as possible.
Will the Minister clarify the position of support staff? I was a teacher for 22 years and I have been racking my brain trying to remember which of the support staff whom I worked with in those years would have needed to be of a particular faith to do the job. My colleagues tell me that things have changed and that the pastoral support side of the job that I did at various times—I was assistant head of year 10, and head of a sixth form for many years—has been given to what are now termed support staff. In a faith school such as a Catholic school, the head has to be a practising Catholic and the member of the support staff giving pastoral care must also be a practising Catholic. Are we therefore saying that when a child comes to that member of staff—as they used to come to me—to discuss their concerns about issues such as homosexuality, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, contraception or abortion, they will not be given such advice because of the legislation that we propose to pass today?
I am not necessarily saying that at all. Our concern in introducing this provision is that there may be schools that are reluctant to carry through the agreed work force reform because there are certain pastoral functions that they believe should be performed by people of the faith of the school in question, and that they therefore continue to appoint qualified teachers to those roles because they are allowed to appoint them on the basis of faith. They want the flexibility to appoint support staff where there is a genuine occupational requirement, in order to carry out those functions within the school. This provision eases the implementation of our work force agreement.
Further to the previous intervention, will my hon. Friend clarify what will count as a genuine occupational qualification? Secondly, why does the Bill not make it clear what such a qualification might be? We are passing a provision into law today, but we do not know exactly what will be in the regulations. Could such a qualification be the giving of pastoral care, including dealing with social issues and pupils’ concerns about their sexuality, for example? Potentially, the giving of such advice could be deeply affected by the religious faith of the person to whom we are granting this occupational qualification.
I will come to the genuine occupational requirement in a moment, when I am allowed to return to my prepared remarks. It is important that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) reflect on what I have said about schools that are not currently appointing support staff because they are appointing teachers of the faith in question to carry out exactly those pastoral functions. So I should point out that if there are concerns about advice being informed by faith, such advice is taking place at the moment, and nothing will change if it is thought that faith is informing such advice. All that we are seeking to do is to allow schools some flexibility.
Our proposal conforms to the EU employment anti-discrimination directive, which was brought into law in the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. It has always been our intention that some “non-teaching” roles— such as that of pastoral care—should attract this freedom. Historically, pastoral roles were carried out solely by teaching staff, and it was considered neither necessary nor desirable for the freedom to discriminate to extend to non-teaching staff. However, since the relevant provisions were enacted, work force remodelling has enabled schools to focus teachers’ attention on teaching. Pastoral and other non-teaching roles are now often more appropriately carried out by non-teaching staff.
Let me now deal with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) raised a moment ago. Existing guidance specifies when the genuine occupational guidance would not apply. It states:
“A GOR cannot be claimed unless some or all of those duties, or the totality of the role, are covered by a specific exemption and an assessment has been made showing that it would be unreasonable to require other employees of the appropriate religion or belief to undertake these duties…Where the organisation has a religious ethos, a GOR exemption cannot be claimed if the nature of the role and the context within which it is carried out is not of sufficient profile or impact within the organisation to affect the overall ethos of the organisation”.
That is particularly relevant to occupations such as a school secretary, a school caretaker or a dinner lady. It is important to note that this provision will not automatically extend the degree of freedom available to those schools; it will simply allow them to make a case for having regard to the religion or belief of an individual member of staff in certain cases, in accordance with existing anti-discrimination legislation.
Can my hon. Friend assure me that the regulations will be written in a comprehensible form, because I did not understand the wording that he just read out? Will they specifically exclude groups such as school dinner ladies, caretakers and cleaners? Because those groups have contact with children, a particular school might prefer to take somebody who, for example, it knew because they went to the local church. Will the regulations specifically exclude some of those jobs on the ground that they are not a genuine occupational qualification, and will they clarify exactly what is a genuine occupational qualification? Will my hon. Friend make that clear to us now?
We will obviously seek to make the regulations as clear as we possibly can. I am not a lawyer, and sometimes the language of the lawyers who draft these provisions can be a little confusing, but I will seek to ensure that the regulations are as clear as possible. I have discussed this issue and we can look at whether specific roles can be identified as carrying, or not carrying, a genuine occupational requirement. In my constituency, for example, support staff have been taken on to perform a number of different functions. Such a person might carry out the crossing patrol first thing in the morning and then work as a teaching assistant at some point before becoming a dinner lady. Such flexibility of working in schools might mean that it would be difficult to rule certain functions in or out, because that might adversely affect some support staff.
In a former life I used to be a union organiser, dealing with the school meals service and school cleaners. We had these debates then and, as I recall, all the education authorities with which I dealt took the view that all ancillary staff were ancillary staff and should be treated as ancillary staff should be treated in any other educational establishment. I am slightly concerned that my hon. Friend appears even to be thinking about the right to discriminate in the case, for example, of school meals workers or other support staff because they may have contact with pupils. I hope that I have misunderstood, but I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would clarify exactly what he is proposing.
I may have confused the House and I apologise if that is the case. I said that we would have to have particular regard to occupations such as dinner lady, school secretary and school caretaker in respect of how we interpret what is a genuine occupational requirement, because normally there would be no such requirement. However, if someone appointed to one of those posts was, as part of their duties, also required consistently to lead acts of collective worship or carry out religious instruction, it might be reasonable for the school, in appointing that person to perform a range of duties, to make a case for a genuine occupational requirement. That would be testable at an employment tribunal, and one would hope that individuals would belong to trade unions that would help them to fight that case.
I look forward to working closely with the support staff unions—which are members of our social partnership and part of the work force agreement monitoring group—on how we take forward this legislation, the secondary legislation and the transitional arrangements. We have assured the GMB, Unison and the Transport and General Workers Union that we will work with them and ensure that they are fully consulted. I accept that consultation has not been at the level to which they have grown accustomedof late.
Can the Minister explain why he did not refer to the genuine occupational requirement in the Bill? The amendment would just insert “in Wales” to achieve the change. Why does he believe that a school would have recourse to the exception under genuine occupational requirement for a secretary who was asked to lead prayers, when it would not apply to a maths teacher who had to be Catholic, say, to work at a certain school? At the moment, voluntary aided schools are allowed to appoint all their teachers on the basis of their faith, with a specific right to do so under the employment regulations, which specifically mention sections 58 and 60. As the amendment amends those sections, how can the Minister be confident that there will be any access, post facto—after someone’s career is wrecked—to this legislation?
We certainly do not envisage anyone’s career being wrecked by the amendment. The governing legislation—the employment anti-discrimination directive defines the genuine occupational requirement—is the reason why we do not specify the genuine occupational requirement in statute.
It is unfortunate that this issue has not been discussed and agreed with the unions before we reached this point. My hon. Friend implied that this issue would end up being tested in an employment tribunal, but we clearly wish to avoid reaching that situation. Can he assure me that the regulations will be tightly defined so that the issue is not left to employment tribunals, and that they will be defined in such a way that it will not be open to schools to redefine jobs so that a small element of a job qualifies for the genuine occupational qualification and therefore affects a post for which 90 per cent. of the work does not qualify?
We will certainly seek to define the matter as carefully and closely as we can in regulation. I agree that it would not be desirable to rely on the tribunal process because of the problems that some people would have in taking a case, especially if they were not members of a trade union. However, it is important that that sanction exists, so that it can be used if governing bodies make the wrong judgment about genuine occupational requirement.
I hear what my hon. Friend says about the trade unions, but I have received letters today from various unions. Brian Strutton, the national secretary of the GMB, says:
“Your assurances are welcome and I look forward in particular to engaging in work on further regulations and guidance to set out the limits to these powers in the way that you suggest.”
Christine McAnea from Unison says:
“I welcome your assurances that this will not lead to discrimination against current and future school support staff on the basis of faith, and I look forward to working alongside the government to put in place the regulations and guidance to ensure that this is the case.”
We look forward to doing that with the trade unions, to ensure that we go forward on a consensual basis. We will revise the school staffing regulations to include the new provisions relating to the employment and dismissal of support staff in voluntary aided faith schools. They will be cross-referenced with the employment regulations and the genuine occupational requirement provisions. We will also include strong guidance in the statutory staffing guidance as to what genuine occupational requirements are, and the circumstances in which they apply.
I repeat that no existing staff will be affected by either of the proposed changes. Our transitional provisions will state that the amendment to section 60(6) of the 1998 Act does not apply to any individual in post on or before the commencement date—that is, that such individuals may not be discriminated against, even in the event of a reorganisation. It will not be lawful to discriminate against any member of support staff at the date of commencement of the new provisions.
Will the Minister make available to the House the letters that he has received from the GMB and Unison? Moreover, did he quote the whole text of the letters? The public documents that the unions have put out make it clear that they remain opposed to the proposal, and they may have decided merely to ameliorate something that the Government were determined to introduce. Finally, has he received a similar letter of support from the NUT?
I shall certainly put the letters in the Library of the House, so that everyone can scrutinise them. They only arrived today, and so are hot off the press. We do not have the same level of discussion with the NUT, as it is not a member of the work force agreement monitoring group. It is not one of our social partners, although perhaps it will see the light one day so that we can include it in more detailed discussions.
I acknowledge that the Minister has been candid about the consultation process and I respect him for that, but I am slightly alarmed that none of the teaching trade unions appears to have been part of the consultation exercise to date. Will they be included in the future, as the proposals have implications for teaching staff? Will he reassure me that the NUT and other teaching trade unions will be able to present any concerns that they may have to Ministers? Some of the concerns that they have expressed over the past few days have been significant, so will they be taken seriously?
We certainly treat the views of thework force very seriously. The work force agreement monitoring group has been discussing these matters for some considerable time, but I readily agree with those critics who say that those discussions have been neither extensive enough nor sufficiently clearly flagged up so that people with a particular interest in the subject can make sure that they are present. However, we will proceed on the basis of full discussion, and I advise my hon. Friend that the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers supports the changes. Moreover, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Association of School and College Leaders and the Professional Association of Teachers are on the work force agreement monitoring group. We will be working with them to agree any regulations and guidance that we produce.
We proceed on these matters through our social partners on the work force agreement monitoring group. We should be delighted if all the representative work force unions belonged to the partnership and were fully in support of the work force agreement. We are not at that point, but it would be great if we could get there.
We occasionally have discussions with the NUT, but everyone must acknowledge and accept that there is a discipline attached to our social partnership. We sit equally around the table with partners in the work force agreement monitoring group, and they agree with our position on the issues—for example, we collectively gave evidence to the statutory School Teachers Review Body during September—which means that they have much greater access to us as Ministers and more detailed conversations with us. It does not mean that we never talk to the NUT and NAHT; I meet them regularly, with others, to discuss issues such as behaviour, but not in the same detail as with our social partners.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but he leaves me slightly puzzled. The NUT is the largest teaching organisation. I am not a member of that union—I never have been and probably never will be—so I have no particular brief for it. However, not to discuss an issue as sensitive, important and serious as this with the largest teaching union seems likely to create problems for the future, at the practical level if nowhere else.
We could have a long debate about the social partnership. We shall certainly discuss the issue with the support staff unions and the rest of our social partners, but I can give my hon. Friend no guarantees at this point about what sort of discussions we might have with those who choose not to be inside the social partnership.
The NUT represents head teachers and teachers applying for headships, so the union is certainly engaged with the issue. Is the Minister saying that the only table to which unions can come for discussions about new Government policy on discrimination—whether religious, racial or gender—has to do with work force remodelling? So if they do not like work force remodelling, or do not otherwise form part of that group, they cannot expect to be engaged with the Government in matters to do with religious, racial, gender, sexual orientation or disability discrimination.
I am sorry to keep labouring the point, but I want to return to support staff. There are not many support staff in small schools and as the whole point of the remodelling agreement is to achieve flexibility, one member of staff may carry out several roles, so what assurances can my hon. Friend give me about the percentage of their work that needs to be covered by something that could be regarded as an occupational qualification before the whole post will be covered? If it is less than 10 per cent., will that prevent it being classed as a genuine occupational qualification? Secondly—
Order. I think that will do for the time being.
I cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley a definition now; I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the discussions that she and others have been urging me to hold with the support staff unions about the implementation of the measure. I ask her to recall what I said previously about the need for a significant, genuine occupational requirement. The chances are that 10 per cent. will not meet it, but I do not want to prejudge the result of the discussions.
We shall consult fully and I urge the House to support the motion.
I thank the Secretary of State for making available the letter he sent to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) about the matter. It is a helpful letter, which explains how the simple technique of inserting the word “Wales” in legislation changes the law relating to England.
Amendment No. 29 relates to the employment of staff at a school. At present, as the Minister so ably explained, the head teacher of a foundation or voluntary controlled faith school cannot be included among the 20 per cent. of teachers who can be selected for their fitness and competence to give religious education and specifically appointed to do so. The Government have argued, and we agree, that it should not be necessary for a foundation or voluntary controlled faith school to convert to voluntary aided status simply to be able to appoint a head teacher who will also lead religious education at the school.
The amendment also removes a restriction in section 60 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which prevents voluntary-aided schools from employing support staff on the basis of their religious beliefs. It is designed to ensure that faith schools are able to appoint non-teaching members of staff, such as pastoral assistants, who follow the religion and ethos of the school. One of the key features of a faith school is its ethos and it is important to protect it. One thing that always strikes me on visiting faith schools is that a school is a community with shared values that permeate it, so where a school considers it necessary, it should be able to appoint teachers who reinforcethat ethos.
The religious aspect of faith schools is not something that stops outside religious education lessons or collective worship: it lies at the very heart of every activity that the school engages in. In the words of the canon law of the Catholic Church:
“The instruction and education in a Catholic school must be grounded in the principles of Catholic doctrine; teachers are to be outstanding in the correct doctrine and integrity of life.”
The same principle should apply to other staff involved with the pastoral care of children in the school. That is particularly the case in view of the impact of work force remodelling, which the Minister mentioned, as an increasing number of support staff are involved in pastoral roles. Our approach to employment is the same as our approach to admissions. We welcome schools that embrace teachers and staff from outside the faith in the same way as we welcome the Church of England’s decision on admission policies, but we believe that it should absolutely be a matter for the schools, not for prescription and legislation.
I recognise the concern in some quarters, particularly as expressed by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), about how the power will be used in respect of staff who are not involved in either a pastoral or academic way with the running of the school. I listened carefully to the Minister and I am sure that he could give a more specific assurance that staff who are not involved in the education of pupils—caretakers, administrative staff, caterers and so forth—will not be employed on the basis of faith. Indeed, appointment on that basis should be permitted only where there is a genuine occupational requirement.
The exchange between the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and the Minister was revealing, particularly in respect of consultation with the unions. The Minister was hesitant in his answer and later acknowledged that very little consultation had taken place before the amendment was introduced. I heard what he said about working with the unions as the legislation moves forward, but consulting after the horse has bolted is not good enough. The Government should ask people who will be affected by the legislation for their views as a matter of course. Surely that is good practice and we should expect the Government to follow it.
Liberal Democrat Members are very concerned about this group of amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is hoping to catch your eye shortly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I know that he, together with some Labour Members, is actively considering whether to oppose the amendment. If my hon. Friend calls a vote, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches will support him, because we are worried about the implications, which have not been properly thought through.
When the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 was debated, we opposed provisions to allow schools to discriminate on grounds of faith. Although the amendment does not increase the quota of the number of staff included, it does widen the scope and we are not happy about that. We currently face an unprecedented shortage of good leadership in schools, so we are particularly concerned about the effect of the amendment on head teachers. The Government will face critical problems in respect of attracting the right people into schools and, given the impending crisis, it seems idiotic further to narrow the pool from which schools can choose good leaders. The criteria are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon pointed out earlier, highly restrictive. It is one thing to expect the head teacher to be in sympathy with the views and the faith of a school, but another to extend that to practice and conduct. That may have huge implications.
For example, let us consider a Catholic head teacher who had been married and subsequently remarried. If the first marriage had been recognised by the Church, the second would not be recognised. Head teachers in that position could not take communion under Catholic rules. Would that put them in breach of the rule on conduct? I suspect that it may, regardless of whether they are practising Catholics. Such aspects of private life, which should not normally be a consideration when choosing good quality teachers, let alone good quality leadership, may come into play. That would be unacceptable, and the Government need to clarify exactly what they mean by conduct and practice of the faith.
We are also worried about extending those discriminatory laws to low paid workers. Many of those people may find that they are unable to get another job. If there is only one school locally and they cannot apply for a job there because they do not fulfil the highly restricted faith criteria, that is ridiculous. It prevents qualified people from applying for jobs and, more to the point, discriminates against those who may wish to work at the school.
My hon. Friend made a point about limiting the range of people who can be chosen as head teachers at a denominational school. However, the Bill would simply allow the post to be restricted; it does not prevent a denominational school from appointing someone from a different faith. The choice is therefore as great as it would otherwise have been.
We can assume, given history, that schools would discriminate on the ground of faith. It is already difficult to find good head teachers, especially in faith schools—there is a problem of shortage of leadership there—and the provision would cause further problems. Liberal Democrat Members are minded to vote against the amendment.
The debate will obviously go on and on. From the outset of my brief contribution, I wantto make it clear that I have worked closely withfaith schools in my constituency and in wider Wolverhampton for more than 30 years. My relationships with them have been overwhelmingly good and the teachers, head teachers and workers have had one thought in their minds—giving the children the best possible education.
The essence of the Government’s proposal will not bring people together but divide them even more. In 1998, I was not happy to support the idea that schools could appoint 20 per cent. of their staff on the ground of religion. I support the idea of religious education, which should be wide, liberal and tolerant. I understand that faith schools wish to present a specific point of view—a spin, in modern parlance, on their faith. I do not especially have a problem with that. However, we have now reached the stage where the20 per cent. is no longer the point. We are now asking, “Can we include a head teacher?” and “Can we appoint non-teaching staff to carry out pastoral duties?”
I regard pastoral care as central to children’s education. Many children bring to school a whole package of difficulties, trauma and deprivation. I expect trained teachers—and trained social workers—to provide genuine help, guidance and support for children in that position. Teachers, through their training, understand the importance and centrality of pastoral care to their role and that they carry it out diligently and properly. There are always those who are poor at what they do, but that applies throughout society.
If we agree to this measure today—and I hope that we will not—it will lead to a downgrading of pastoral care at the heart of many of our urban schools, where pupils have serious difficulties. I welcome the idea that funding for schools is now so abundant that there is room in work force changes to have specific posts. May I have one in every school in my constituency? However, the appointment does not need to be made on the basis of the person’s religion. We need someone who is properly qualified and understanding—even at graduate level. It is so important that we get this part of our education system absolutely correct.
As for the trade unions point of view, the consultation will go on. Ultimately,the trade unions will acquiesce in whatever the Government want, because that is the way things have to be. But the fact of the matter is that this is far wider than a narrow trade union interest. This is the biggest issue in the Bill—outside of the provision to have trust schools, and so on and so forth—and therefore, with sadness, I will vote against the Government on this matter. They have had what we call in the industrial west midlands a bit of a bum’s rush. The policy is ill thought out and the Government do not know the consequences. No one has been through all the possibilities.
Most of all, the idea that I have to be a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim or someone of some faith to help and guide a young person is appalling. Those with religion in their hearts should look in their hearts to understand just what they are doing in this case and what they are demanding. I am talking about stripping away from us our essential humanity—our ability to care for one another regardless of our creed, colour, sexual orientation or anything else that may divide us. What we are looking at here is how we can help a fellow human being—often of tender years. The number of times that someone will be called on to say, “I am not sure about my faith. Can you help me?” is infinitesimal compared with the baggage and problems that children bring to our schools every day and that need to be addressed with proper professional help, support and guidance. I urge the Government to rethink this matter, because I do not honestly believe that they have had time to work through all the consequences.
The hon. Gentleman is slightly over-egging the issue in one way. As far as I can see, the proposition is that schools may prefer to appoint somebody of a particular faith. Nobody has claimed, and the Bill does not imply, that a person with no faith cannot offer pastoral help. That is never said at any point, but that seems to be the main thrust of his argument.
Indeed it is, because throughout the history of legislation, there is a choice between something being mandatory or permissive, and what happens? Permissive provisions are ultimately operated as mandatory. We know that religious schools will do that and I understand why they will do it. That is their belief. I do not take it away from them, but please do not take away from me, and from other human beings, that essential part of our character that says that, regardless of differences, we can help, support and guide young people in their everyday lives. That means, at its heart, that the education that they get is more whole and more helpful, and that we end up with better, more rounded, more able young people progressing through school and coming out into the big wide world.
It is a privilege and pleasure to follow that contribution by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase). It is also important to recognise the valuable contributions and interventions made by the hon. Members for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who have pressed the Government on the principle and also on the issue of consultation. I want to talk about the impact that the measure will have, what exactly it does in statute and then say a word or two about the consultation.
An e-mail of recent origin was provided to me this week from a young woman who says:
“As a primary school teacher, I have long been aware that I am discriminated against because of my beliefs. So many primaries, perhaps particularly here in the north west, are faith schools that my inability to provide a faith reference has meant that my opportunities for employment are severely restricted. On first moving to the area over 10 years ago I did apply to C of E, Methodist and RC schools even though they stated ‘practising…preferred’, as I thought that it might be a formality. However, it soon became apparent that this was not the case, and now I don’t even bother to apply. At one interview, I was asked if I were a Christian and I replied that I tried to live my life according to values which Christians shared. I was told that this was not enough and that to work in their school, I needed to have Christ in my heart. Needless to say, I did not get the position. It went to someone who ran a Sunday school class in her ‘spare’ time.
Can you imagine the despair I feel at the knowledge that even more faith schools are being planned, so restricting my chance of employment and that of others like me, even further, as time goes on?”
That is the response to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who says that this provision does not mandate discrimination. I accept that, but if it permits it, and it has been asked for by the faith schools, some will use it. If even one school discriminates unfairly on the basis of religion in the provision of education in a state school, especially one where salaries are 100 per cent. funded by the state, which is all VA and VC schools, or one where capital costs are only 80, 90 or 100 per cent. funded by the state, which again is all schools, that is not justified. We should oppose it on principle, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East says. That is why my party opposed the basic statute. The only argument that the Government made in support of such new discrimination is that it already happens to teachers so we may as well make it more uniform because we are asking non-teachers to be in the classroom.
If there is a fundamental problem with the basic legislation—the Liberal Democrats believe that there is, which is why we voted against the provisions in 1998 and voted to delete clauses in 2002—it is right and logical that we should, on a point of principle, oppose this measure.
I want to explain to the House what the Bill does because it needs to be made clear. Let us deal first with support staff. Inserting the words “in Wales” in section 60(6) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 means that, for a voluntary aided school in England, it will no longer be the case that
“no person shall be disqualified by reason of his religious opinions, or of his attending or omitting to attend religious worship, from being employed for the purposes of the school otherwise than as a teacher.
By inserting the words “in Wales” the Government have, in a not very clear way and late in the Bill’s passage, removed the protection that existed for all non-teachers. That leaves them open to the full force of section 60.
It is important to recognise what section 60 permits schools to do. It says:
“This section applies to a…voluntary school which has a religious character.”
In a voluntary aided school—or in the case of a reserved teacher in a voluntary controlled school—
“(a) preference may be given, in connection with the appointment, remuneration or promotion of teachers at the school, to persons-
(i) whose religious opinions are in accordance with the tenets of the religion or religious denomination specified in relation to the school under section 69(4), or
(ii) who attend religious worship in accordance with those tenets, or
(iii) who give, or are willing to give, religious education at the school in accordance with those tenets; and
(b) regard may be had, in connection with the termination of the employment of any teacher at the school, to any conduct on his part which is incompatible with the precepts, or with the upholding of the tenets, of the religion or religious denomination so specified.”
I would be grateful if the Minister clarified whether that section will apply to new appointments of support staff.
If the Minister clarifies to which bits he is referring, that would be beneficial.
I wish to discuss the background to the measure. The Bill has been before Parliament for a long time—several months—yet the measure was not in the version of the Bill that received Second Reading in the House of Commons and was scrutinised by the Standing Committee, nor in the Bill that went through Report stage in the House of Commons. The Bill that received Second Reading in the House of Lords made no mention of it. As far as I know, the measure appeared by way of an amendment tabled by a bishop in Committee in the House of Lords. It was inserted in the Bill without any fanfare, lumped in with a number of other amendments, during Report stage in the House of Lords. Now, we have our one and only chance to deal with the important question of religion and discrimination.
The work force remodelling agreement group has been in existence for some time. Why had the provision not been discussed by the group or put on its agenda before two Thursdays ago?
I intervene in an attempt to speed up the debate. As I said, I am sorry that some unions thought that they were not properly consulted. The provisions were discussed by the work force agreement monitoring group both last week and a year ago, when they were first being given serious consideration by the Government. The amendments were originally tabled by the Bishop of Peterborough during Committee stage of the Bill in the House of Lords, as the hon. Gentleman said. Following those discussions, to ease the handling of the Bill, we decided to respond with similar, but more minor, amendments.
It would raise some interesting constitutional questions if we did not allow the Lords to amend Bills. That Bills may be amended in the House of Lords is part of the bicameral system that we enjoy in this country.
It should be permitted, but whether it is advisable for the Government to propose such an amendment at so late a stage is questionable.
We need to be clear what the Lords amendment will do in relation to head teachers. It is my understanding that there are 2,639—or thereabouts—voluntary controlled primary and secondary schools, which are able to make up to 20 per cent. of their teaching staff, not including the head teacher, reserved teachers, in the words of the 1998 Act. Those reserved teachers are subject to section 60(5), because section 60(3) states clearly that section 59(2) to (4), which are protections against discrimination,
“shall not so apply in relation to a reserved teacher at the school”—
that is, a school that has a religious character—
“and instead subsection (5) below shall apply in relation to such a teacher as it applies in relation to a teacher at a voluntary aided school.”
All those provisions do apply.
In reply to my intervention and that of the hon. Member for Amber Valley, the Minister made it clear that if two candidates for a head teacher post apply and both are able to teach religious education, the governing body is allowed, if it wishes, to appoint the generally less qualified one if it decides to make a faith test apply. The Minister told me that informally, he repeated it earlier in the debate and I see him confirming it now. That cannot be right.
In defence of that position, the Minister said that voluntary controlled schools are not dominated by the faith interest of the foundation because it does not have a majority of governors. However, as he knows, governors form coalitions. There will be a significant minority of governors from the faith interest, designed to ensure that the instructions of the diocese or its equivalent are followed, and a number of parent governors who are likely—especially if the school draws from one religious population—to be of that religion. In addition, there are teacher governors. Soit will not be a surprise if there is a majority of governors, albeit in a school that is 100 per cent. funded by the state in capital and running costs, who decide to use the permissive power that they have been given and which they have asked for.
Is it my hon. Friend’s position that when a person applies for any job in a denominational school, at no point can their denomination be a consideration? Does he accept that a consequence of that could bea denominational school with nobody from that denomination teaching in it?
Yes. That is the position that we on the Liberal Democrat Benches voted for previously, because we do not believe that teaching in a state school is an occasion for proselytisation, and that as long as teachers are able to uphold the ethos of the school, they should not be required to attend a specific church on a Sunday. They merely have to uphold the ethos of the school. They do not require a faith test, and their private lawful conduct, for example, with regard to their sexual orientation, should not be permitted to be a factor in their employment prospects, whether for promotion, appointment or dismissal.
Yes, that is correct. Otherwise, on what basis would one oppose discrimination? Obviously, the Catholic faith may argue that every single teacher and member of staff in its schools must be Catholic in order to uphold the ethos. I would argue that an ethos is an ethos and is not dependent on the religious views of individuals in that state school. The job of the school is to teach. There is already difficulty, as we have heard, in finding enough people of the correct faith to appoint to specific schools, particularly head teachers. My hon. Friend will have to defend a situation which is the logical consequence of what he says, in which every teacher must undergo a faith test if the ethos is to be fully upheld.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that the Government’s position is that religious education should be taught across a broad curriculum by a professional teacher with an understanding of the various religions? It does not call at any point for a teacher of a particular religion to be employed to do that job. That is the Government’s position.
Quite so, and community schools that are not faith schools have an ethos that is not religious. I would not call for them, and they do not seek, to apply a non-religious test to the teachers applying to work in those schools to ensure that they uphold a non-religious ethos. What sort of society are we becoming when teachers in state schools are required to be of a faith, or not be of a certain faith, in order to teach? Those who wish to teach religious education in a Catholic school may well be Catholic. That may be why they have gone into it, and there may be a wide pool of such applicants. That is fair enough, but when the state is employing people, it is no one’s business to ask the religious belief of the people concerned.
The Minister said that head teachers can already be subject to a faith test by virtue of section 60(4) of the 1998 Act. I put it to him that section 60(4) is not a faith test. It states:
“In connection with the appointment of a person to be a head teacher of the school (whether foundation or voluntary controlled)”—
referring to a case where the head teacher is not to be a reserve teacher, which is the status quo—
“regard may be had to that person’s ability and fitness to preserve and develop the religions character of the school.”
I hope that the Minister will accept that that is not the sort of faith test that is being introduced by making that person a reserve teacher. Instead, the new faith test is a version of
(i) whose religious opinions are in accordance of the tenets of the religion and religious denomination specified in relation to the school under section 69(4)”
in section 60(5) of the 1998 Act. There is no mention of ethos in that faith test. It is a faith test, not a test of ability to uphold the ethos. I hope the Minister will accept that that is the case.
On the question of consultation, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers are the two unions which almost exclusively represent head teachers, and the NUT is a major representative of potential head teachers. When the matter was debated in the Lords, the Government gave the impression that the trade unions principally concerned had been consulted. In response to Lord Avebury’s suggestion that they knew nothing about the proposals until the last moment, Lord Adonis, a decent man whom I like, said:
“My Lords, that is simply not true.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 October 2006; Vol. 686, c. 53.]
He claimed that they were “thoroughly consulted”. The NUT, however, says that it was not consulted. Its letter to the Secretary of State, which has been distributed to Members, states:
“I wrote to you yesterday concerning amendment 54…I have now had the benefit of reading the comments of Lord Adonis in Hansard. It is my view that the manner of the development of this amendment is an example of poor Government…Neither the NUT nor the NAHT have been involved in any consultation. This situation is totally unacceptable”.
It goes on to complain further about the Minister’s representations in the House of Lords as to whatever discussions took place. It continues in very strong terms:
“No attempt is being made by Government to involve all representatives of the teaching profession in taking forward these important matters. It seems to me that the way the Government is conducting this matter is likely to lead to division and poor decisions.”
I do not mean to echo criticism of the Government per se. However, does the Minister accept that consulting after the statute has been passed is not the appropriate way to consult, that it is not in line with the Cabinet Office guide on consultation, and that ideally it should have been brought in separately rather than as it was? Unison and the GMB have given us press releases in support of the support staff involved. Will the Minister confirm that while those unions may welcome the measures in terms of any post facto consultation on the detail of transitional arrangements, they remain opposed in principle to their introduction?
This is a question of principle about whether the existing discrimination provisions should be extended and whether the career prospects of non-religious teachers and support staff, or teachers or support staff of a different religion, should be curtailed in this way. The Minister said that in respect of non-teaching support staff, the measure will apply to teachers in a pastoral role. I suggest that that is exactly the sort of role where an obvious religious leaning might not be helpful. I do not know how many pupils come to their teachers with religious crises, but I know that a large number do so with crises regarding their personal lives and health, particularly their sexual health. It wouldbe entirely possible for a faith school to have a non-religious figure doing that job who can refer pupils who turn up with a religious crisis to the appropriate faith-based person in the school.
The proposals are ill thought out, wrong in principle and rushed through, and I will therefore seek to test the opinion of the House.
Publication of proposals for alteration of school
Lords amendment: No. 6.
The majority of the Lords amendments in the group are technical, and I will spare the House the pain of considering them in detail. Instead, I shall briefly set out the thrust of the main amendments.
Lords amendments Nos. 11, 13, 17, 89 and 90 protect foundations. For schools that already have a foundation, it is right that the trustees should be asked to give their consent to proposals that might have an impact on them. Lords amendments Nos. 18 to 24 ensure that governing bodies have a full picture of the implications of removing a foundation for assets. Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 28 permit parents to invite people other than parents of current pupils to the parent council.
Does my hon. Friend agree that parent councils are important, that parents’ voices must be heard, and that parents must be able to ensure that they have additional support on parent councils, if they think it necessary?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an intelligent point, and she speaks admirably for parents in her constituency. She is right that there are circumstances in which parent councils may need further advice, perhaps from parents whose children recently attended the school—that scenario would be allowed under the amendment.
Lords amendments Nos. 48 to 52 extend the list of persons whom the Secretary of State is required to consult before appointing additional governors, so that it includes the local authority, the school’s governing body and, when appropriate, the foundation. Lords amendments Nos. 96 to 217, which apply to schedule 4, further extend and clarify the protection of both public and private investment in school land. They simplify some of the provisions for the disposal of publicly funded, non-playing-field school land, as well as the schools adjudicator’s powers to determine the cases put to him.
We are very clear about the fact that contractual agreements relating to PFI would transfer with different arrangements in respect of schools. We have to be very cautious about that scenario. We issued guidance on the renegotiation of PFI in certain circumstances relatively recently— I think that it was to do with school food—but, as far as I am aware, PFI obligations would transfer to a community school. If I receive further advice, I will update the hon. Lady.
The updating has proceeded smoothly, and I can now clarify the position. PFI contracts are always with the local authority, so if a contract reverts to a community school, it will remain with the authority.
I believe that in amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 24 the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) might be trying to revisit the question of whether foundations should be able, when the governing body wishes it, to appoint a majority of the governors. That question is fundamental to the whole policy of trust schools as set out in the schools White Paper, and we believe that it has been debated pretty thoroughly during the Bill’s passage through both Houses.
The amendments would simply create bureaucratic burdens for voluntary controlled schools wishing to become foundation schools, when their existing arrangements with their foundations currently work perfectly well. Amendment (a) would extend the application of clause 32, which sets out what is required of new trusts—for example, that they are incorporated charities of a particular description. It would apply those requirements to voluntary controlled schools—schools with foundations with which they are working well—that changed category to foundation, even when they did not wish the foundation to appoint a majority of the governors. We do not think that it is necessary or desirable to disrupt arrangements that are working, and I hope that the hon. Lady will not press her amendment.
We are dealing with a range of amendments relating to school organisations. Lords amendments Nos. 6 to 10 and 12 relate to local authorities’ power to propose alterations to schools. In particular, they allow authorities to increase the number of pupils admitted. They also clarify authorities’ powers with respect to foundation special schools. Conservative Members welcome these proposals. It would be odd if a local authority could order a school to enlarge its premises but could not order it to admit additional pupils.
I am slightly concerned about the separation of foundation special schools from other foundation schools. It seems that the amendments would allow a local authority to change the type of special educational needs for which a school has been organised. I do not imagine that a charity specialising in one form of special education would sponsor a trust school if there were a risk that the local authority would change the type of SEN that it offered. However, this is an improvement on the Bill’s original wording, which implied that a local authority could end SEN provision altogether at a special school. I hope that the Government will make it clear, in guidance and regulations, the circumstances in which changing the type of SEN provision in a school would be acceptable.
Lords amendment No. 13 restricts the right of governing bodies to publish foundation proposals in the case of voluntary schools or existing foundation schools. That ensures that schools ask permission from their faith groups, foundations or dioceses before they propose to become foundation schools, or change the instrument of government to allow a majority of governors to be foundation governors. The amendment therefore strengths the oversight of faith groups and existing foundations over the control of the schools that they serve. It means that no existing voluntary school could become a trust school without seeking proper permission. Given the historic role that the Churches have played in the development of such schools, that seems a reasonable proposition. Lords amendment No. 90 supplements it by specifically amending the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure.
Lords amendments Nos. 17 to 23 concern the removal of foundations under clause 24. Lords amendment No. 20 ensures that the governing body makes arrangements for the transfers of assets and lands when a foundation is removed before publishing proposals to remove the foundation. Clearly if a trust provided a school with resources, it would be extremely unwise for the school to attempt to remove the trust if it would lead to the return of all those assets to the original owners. The amendment will make schools think carefully before removing the foundation by ensuring that they are fully aware of the financial consequences. Again, we support the amendment.
Clause 32 imposes certain requirements on the foundations of trust schools. In particular, it ensures that the foundations are charitable and it allows for charity trustees to be disqualified in accordance with the regulations that we saw in Committee, such as when trustees have criminal convictions, or when teachers are on list 99. Lords amendment No. 24 clarifies which type of school this clause applies to. The clause applies to any foundation school or foundation special school with a foundation, subject to three conditions, A, B and C.
Amendment (a) in the name of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) amends condition B. Condition B states that the section applies to a foundation school with a foundation where it acquired the foundation under this Bill, or where it is an existing foundation school with a foundation whose instrument of government is altered under this Bill to provide for the majority of governors to be foundation governors. Is that clear so far?
The amendment would replace the words “the majority” with “a component”. I believe that the amendment is probably technically flawed. It is clear from subsection (1) of the Government amendment that clause 32 applies only to foundation schools having a foundation. Such schools will already have “a component” of foundation governors on the governing body. There is no question, therefore, of an alteration of the instrument of government leading an existing foundation school with a foundation to “become” such a school. If anything, this amendment removes existing foundation schools with a foundation from the requirements of clause 32 where they decide that a majority of the governing body should be foundation governors. So there we are.
Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 28 relate to parents councils. Amendment No. 27 in particular allows parents to invite people other than parents of current pupils on to the parent council. It also provides that parent members must consent to the appointment of a non-parent member, and that parents must still form a majority on the council. This is a welcome amendment, because it recognises the role that schools can play within communities and communities can play within schools. In faith schools, in particular, it would be extremely beneficial if representatives of the faith within the community could play a meaningful role on the parents council, particularly where, for religious reasons, such people may not have children of their own.
Amendments Nos. 48 to 51 propose that the Secretary of State consult the local education authority and the governing body of the school before deciding to appoint additional governors. Again, this is welcome. Originally, the Secretary of State would have to have consulted only in the case of voluntary aided schools, and in this case only the Diocese or the person who appointed the foundation governors. Now the Bill will make it clear that the Secretary of State should consult in all cases, and should also consult the local authority and governing body of the school.
According to the Minister in the other place, this already reflects best practice on the part of the Government. I welcome this amendment, which will mean that the foundation of a trust school is given the same rights as the foundation of a voluntary aided school.
I wish to speak to our amendment to Lords amendment No. 24, which takes us neatly off the subject of God, which has occupied us all afternoon. I hope that we will be able to be a lot quicker now.
The Government, and the whole House, will be aware that throughout the passage of the Bill we have opposed measures that allow a foundation to appoint a majority of school governors and, therefore, to reduce the component of directly elected parent governors. We see this as a question of accountability and principle. The Government’s position seems to fly in the face of much of their rhetoric about parent power. We entirely accept the analysis of the school swot from the Conservative Front Bench, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), that our amendment is not perfect and does not achieve all the things that we seek. But we are bound by the rules of this stage of the legislative process, which mean that we can amend only the amendments that are in play. We have sought to do that because it is an issue of considerable principle to us and because we want the Government to respond to our concerns.
The Government’s answer to our protests about the decrease in the number of elected parent-governors is usually twofold. First, they argue that foundationscan appoint parent-governors. But it should be transparently obvious, especially in a place such as this House, that appointment is not a good enough solution, in contrast to a directly elected democratic mandate, which is always preferable and much more powerful.
The Government’s second answer is usually that the school will be required to set up a parent council. but, of course, such councils are advisory, not decision making. However, perhaps the greatest irony is that, within the group of amendments, the Government are allowing parent councils to appoint people other than parents.
I accept the point of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about the need to involve the community and people of other faiths in the governance of a school, but I am unsure whether a parent council is the place to do that. That is surely a matter for the governing body or other users or advisory panels. The parent council has that name because it is supposed to involve parents at the school.
I understand that the Government recognise the difficulties that many schools find in appointing the right number of parents to a parent council, but they cannot then argue that the measures in the Bill meet our other concerns.
That is a welcome clarification, although I am not sure that it meets my original concern about the lack of directly elected parent governors involved in the governance and decision making of the school. My point is simply that the Government normally make the argument that all of our concerns are met elsewhere in the Bill, and they are not met elsewhere in the Bill. If anything, with the passage of time, this situation has got worse.
I will not test the opinion of the House on this matter, because I accept that the amendment does not meet all the objectives that we are trying to achieve. But I want to put it on record again that we are unhappy with the reduction in accountability to parents. That is unacceptable.
I shall discuss amendment No. 33 shortly, but first let me say that amendments Nos. 42 and 77 fulfil the commitment that I made on Report to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), to whom I pay tribute. If the adjudicator or the National Assembly for Wales decides to reduce the proportion of children selected by a school with pre-existing selection, it cannot later return to 1997-98 levels. The same restriction will apply if an admission authority voluntarily decides to reduce the proportion of children selected. This is consistent with the intention of the original legislation.
Amendments Nos. 33, 34, 36, 76 and 237 require schools designated as having a religious character—the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) will be appalled that I am returning to religion, and I apologise—to consult an appropriate body or person representing the religion or religious denomination on their proposed admission arrangements. They also give such groups the power to refer to the adjudicator orthe National Assembly for Wales an objection about determined admission arrangements in schools of their particular faith. We will consult each faith group before prescribing in regulations which body or person should be consulted. This provision will contribute to ensuring that admission arrangements of faith schools reflect the churches’ stance on fair admissions and comply with the school admissions code.
Amendments Nos. 35 and 75 clarify existing legislation. As admission authorities for community and voluntary controlled schools, local authorities make decisions about which children should be admitted. Although it is implicit in existing legislation, there is no express statutory duty on the governing bodies of those schools to comply with such decisions. These amendments put the position beyond doubt.
Amendments Nos. 37 to 41 enable the schools adjudicator to consider whether his determination on an objection to admission arrangements should be binding for the full period permitted by regulations, or whether a lesser period is more appropriate. That gives him the flexibility to make sensible determinations that take account of local circumstances.
Finally, following earlier consideration in this House, I made a commitment to amend the Bill by requiring the consent of the governing body to the introduction of pupil banding to its school’s admission arrangements. Amendments Nos. 43, 44 and 45 fulfil that commitment.
This group of amendments relates to admissions, as the Minister said, and many of them are technical. However, amendment No. 35 ensures that the governing body of a community or voluntary controlled school carries out the admissions decisions of a local authority. At present, as the Minister said, although local authorities are the admissions authorities for such schools, there is apparently—this was news to me—no statutory duty on governing bodies to comply with these decisions.
Amendment No. 36 will ensure that the governing body of a foundation or voluntary school consults its faith schools before determining their admission arrangements under section 90 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. It will also give faith groups the new power to refer an objection about admission arrangements to the schools adjudicator. This new power follows representations made to the Government by the Church of England and the Catholic Church. I recognise the value of this amendment in ensuring that faith schools implement the views of their faith’s hierarchy in respect of admission decisions. At present, many faith schools are run predominantly for the benefit of members of the faith. For instance, under the Roman Catholic code of canon law, Catholic parents have a duty to choose schools that can provide a Catholic education, and no school may be called a Catholic school without the permission of a competent ecclesiastical authority.
It is clear that religions and denominations should play a key role in determining the admissions policy of their schools. Amendment No. 36 would, for example, allow faith groups to disseminate best practice with respect to admissions, and to encourage their schools to adopt common admissions frameworks. It would help to back up the Church of England’s recent commitment to ensuring that 25 per cent. of the pupils admitted come from non-Christian backgrounds. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that that is a great example of social responsibility, but without this amendment the Church of England would have no recourse against its own schools if they decided to defy the policy of its hierarchy.
Amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 40 enable the schools adjudicator to consider whether his decisions should be binding for the full period permitted by regulations, or, as the Minister said, whether a shorter period would be more appropriate. This is a sensible amendment, which we support, as it prevents the need for a school to seek permission for trivial changes following an adverse judgment from the adjudicator.
Amendments Nos. 43, 44 and 45 relate to pupil banding.
Clause 49 amends section 101 of the 1998 Act, which currently permits banding in cases where schools make their intake representative of the ability range among applicants for admission. The Bill extends this by allowing schools to band in order to have a different range of abilities that are representative of, say, children at several different schools, all children in the local authority area, or children throughout the country. However, if a local authority wanted to introduce this new form of banding to one of the schools for which it was an admission authority, it would need to seek the consent of the governing body. These amendments extend this requirement to the existing form of banding.
This issue was overlooked when the Bill was drafted. We raised it in Committee, and I am very pleased that the Government decided to take on board our concerns and to introduce these amendments. We were concerned that, while banding can be a useful tool where schools want to ensure a genuine all-ability intake, if imposed on schools, banding risks becoming a tool for social engineering and could severely hinder parents’ ability to choose schools for their child. We were particularly concerned that local authorities might use the duty in clause 1 to promote fair access as a pretext for imposing banding across a wider area. We were also concerned that some local authorities might seek to promote banding more widely because of an obsession with a school’s intake, rather than a focus on school standards.
In my view, it is teaching and leadership that play the pre-eminent role in ensuring school quality, not intake. Education should be primarily concerned with ensuring that each child fulfils his or her potential, not with ensuring a particular mix of abilities in a school. Parents will not have confidence in the education system if it requires their child to be bussed across town simply to satisfy an arbitrary quota on ability range, especially when that is imposed contrary to the wishes of the school. Schools need to be free to decide to adopt banding when that suits the school’s ethos and circumstances, and it should not be used to push social agendas that lack the support of parents. Therefore, we welcome the amendment and will support it and the others in the group.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his prompt action in providing for Lords amendment No. 42, which is essentially the amendment I moved on Report, but put into what I hope is foolproof draftsman’s language. As he says, the amendment would close a loophole in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that allowed adjudicators to increase, as well as decrease, levels of selection at partially selected schools, provided that they did not increase them over the 1998 level. He is right to say that that was never the Government’s intention in that Act, which was confirmed to me by his predecessor, Stephen Twigg. The Act was intended to allow adjudicators to reduce selection, but not increase it again.
The amendment would amend a ruling by Mr. Justice Collins in the High Court in 2004 that the wording of the 1998 Act would actually allow an adjudicator to raise selection at a school back to the level at which it had been in 1998. When I say that I hope that the amendment is foolproof draftsman’s language, I am aware that this precise wording will be examined in the courts. The words in the amendment
“lowest proportion…at any time since the…1997-1998 school year”
leave very little room for doubt. They establish that we are talking about a ratchet, not a seesaw. Once selection has been reduced, it stays reduced.
I know that no adjudicator has yet used the loophole to raise the level of selection at a partially selected school, but an adjudicator in my borough certainly considered an application from parents who wanted to raise the proportion of selected pupils and said that she had the power to do so. In the event, she did not, but there is no need to wait for a loophole to be used before it is closed. Once it has been identified by the courts it is best to close it before it is used, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on doing just that.
This group of amendments deals largely with issues peripheral to our main concerns in the earlier part of the Bill. It includes some welcome additions, in particular amendment No. 42, to which the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) has just spoken. I am a little bemused, given that the Government have made it clear that they do not want to increase selection, why they did not adopt the elegant solution proposed by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), which would have made the issue clear and led to an overall reduction in selection.
I wish to speak to amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 47. We accept that the current rules governing charging for instrumental and vocal tuition are not logical and that they lead to many anomalies. That is especially true for those instruments that almost always have to be studied in a large group, and for large groups such as orchestras and wind bands. However, it is almost impossible to learn instruments such as the piano in groups of more than one—or possibly two, if a school is lucky enough to have two pianos in its hall.
Some charging is inevitable, although it pains me to say so. As a child, I benefited from a free peripatetic music service, which probably had more impact on my views and development than almost anything. We in Leicestershire were lucky to have fantastic music tuition, and it was available to almost every student who wanted it. I fondly remember being one of a dozen or so students scraping away at violins in a cold school hall on a Monday evening, yet the tuition was so good that three years later I had achieved grade 8—although I still had not graduated to full-size violin.
My parents could have, and would have, contributed to my extra-curricular music education, but that is not the case for the many students whose parents are unwilling or unable to do so. We are seeking clarification about the remissions arrangements that the Government expect to put in place. Enabling regulations elsewhere in the Bill will ensure that remissions arrangements are put in place for charging for school travel on the basis of free school meals, for instance, and we do not understand why the Government have not adopted a similar approach to music tuition.
I hope that the Minister will assure the House that the Government will issue guidance, at least, in respect of charging levels. Young people learning a popular instrument are likely to be in a group of a dozen or so at the beginning of the process, but individuals learning the piano or the double bass may find that they have to pay an awful lot more because the charge is not split between group members. Will the Government issue guidance to ensure that some young people are not disadvantaged in that way? Similarly, will the Minister assure the House that provision is made for those young people who cannot afford to pay?
Lords amendment No. 47 was originally moved by Lord Moser in the House of Lords, where it received support from all sides. It would ensure that singing tuition is recognised as a form of music tuition, alongside instrumental music tuition, and that private musical instrument tuition can occur in large groups.
The human voice is a musical instrument. As a Member of the House, one learns quickly that it is not always played with immense skill; when it is, it can produce the sublime. It is important that the amendment is agreed to, as it deals with an anomaly in current law that prevents schools from charging in the circumstances referred to by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather). She made a valid point about the guidance that will be issued, and we too would like to hear from the Minister about that. She also described the possible effects of confusion about the charging regime’s application to certain kinds of tuition in schools.
Removal of the anomaly should mean that children have wider access to musical instrument and singing tuition. In the other place, the Minister rightly said that the existing system presents
“unjustified restrictions that are holding back musictuition in our schools”.—[Official Report, House of Lords,30 October 2006; Vol. 686, c. 135.]
I do not want to delay the House further. I am pleased that the Liberals are now on side on this subject and I look forward to the Ministers’ comments, which I hope will clarify the points that have been made in this place and elsewhere. I finish withDr. Johnson—that great Tory—who said that music was the only sensual pleasure without vice.
The Johnson I answer to is also a great fan of music and might support that quote.
There are sound educational grounds for the change proposed in the Lords amendment. Restrictions on group sizes for instrumental tuition work against best practice. The intention is to remove barriers to promoting the best contemporary group teaching practices and conditions for learning.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) for proposing her amendment. I understand and agree with her concern that children from disadvantaged families should not be adversely affected by the change. However, we consider her amendment unnecessary, because section 457 (1) of the Education Act 1996 requires that remissions policies have to be in place for any “optional extra” for which a charge is permitted. Setting out in regulations the circumstances in which vocal and instrumental tuition can be charged for will mean, by virtue of section 455 of the Act, that such tuition is an “optional extra”, over and above the music tuition already provided as part of the national curriculum. In guidance to support the new regulations, we will reiterate the requirement to have in place remissions policies, including complete remission for pupils whose parents are in receipt of a range of benefits, such as income support and tax credits.
I hope that on that basis the hon. Lady will not press her amendment.
I thank the Minister for his assurances. I hope that the consultation, in contrast to the consultations we discussed earlier, will include bodies that may have views on the proposal, but which may not be within the social partnership arrangements. With the Minister’s assurances in mind, I shall not press my amendment.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 69.